With the China threat out, who needs the US?
Last week, the President said that whether the ruling of the Arbitral Tribunal would be favorable to the Philippines or not, his administration was willing to start bilateral negotiations with China on the conflict in the South China Sea that has dragged on for years and has become an international concern. He added that even if the Arbitral Tribunal ruled against the Philippines, his administration would accept the judgment.
The President's announcement was a masterstroke in diplomacy. Certainly, this move would anger Washington which has been egging on the Philippines to confront China's so-called hegemonic ambition in the area, by hoisting the bogey that China is bent on controlling the sea-lane in the disputed territory to the exclusion of international shipping.
The sea is the main maritime link between the Pacific and Indian Oceans, where over $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes annually. Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei also have overlapping claims to the waters, which are believed to sit atop vast mineral reserves.
If through bilateral talks Mr. Duterte would be able to achieve a modus vivendi with China on the issue concerning the Spratlys, then the threat of China to the Philippines' security would be eliminated. And since at the moment only China, among the countries in Asia, is perceived to be our potential aggressor, we can now do away with the massive infusion of US military aid to the Philippines.
Even during the election campaign, Mr. Duterte was emphatic in stating his position against any armed conflict over the South China Sea. 'We are not prepared to go to war. 'War' is a dirty word,' he said.
Just a week into his presidency, he has shown a singular resolve and strong political will in confronting not just domestic issues such as the drug menace, criminality and corruption, but also foreign policy kinks.
His firm determination to resolve the maritime dispute with China through direct peaceful negotiations is in sharp contrast to the tack used by then President Benigno Aquino III, who rallied the United States and other foreign governments in denouncing China's 'bullying' in the region.
Aquino's position was that China's claim to most of the South China Sea and its island-building program in the disputed waters violated international law. He also refused to hold direct talks with China on the conflict as he pointed out its insistence that its claims were indisputable and, thus, there was nothing to negotiate.
China has been unequivocal in saying that it would reject any ruling of the Arbitral Tribunal. It insists that the court has no jurisdiction over the issue.
As Christopher Hill, former US assistant secretary of state for East Asia, said in a recent commentary titled 'China's bad-neighbor policy is bad business' (Opinion, 7/6/16), China 'obviously has the strength to drive out the Vietnamese, the Filipinos, the Malaysians, the Indonesians, and almost anyone else it chooses to confront.'
And the fact that China has not driven out claimant-countries such as the Philippines from the islands that they have occupied is a positive indication that a peaceful settlement of the dispute could be arrived at.
Earlier, the Chinese Embassy in Manila said that while China's sovereignty over the whole of the Spratly archipelago is nonnegotiable,it is willing to discuss joint development of the region.
Last July 4, the official China Daily reported that China is ready to start negotiations with the Philippines on issues related to the South China Sea if Manila ignores the arbitration ruling on the long-running territorial dispute.
The China Daily said negotiations between China and the Philippines could cover 'issues such as joint development and cooperation in scientific research if the new government puts the tribunal's ruling aside before returning to the table for talks.'
In June, China's foreign ministry said the two countries agreed in 1995 to settle disputes in the South China Sea 'in a peaceful and friendly manner through consultations on the basis of equity and mutual respect.'
It said China and the Philippines have held many rounds of talks on the proper management of maritime disputes, although there have been no negotiations to settle the actual dispute in the South China Sea.