By Li Kaisheng
A combination of factors has put the China-Philippines relations under the spotlight recently. Not long ago, when I participated in the 9th "Manila Forum for China-Philippines Relations" upon the invitation of the Association for Philippines-China Understanding (APCU), I personally felt how divided the Filipinos' perception of China is.
My trip to Manila coincided with a media frenzy in the Philippines about the "replenishment incident at Ren'ai Jiao". On August 5, the Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) blocked some Philippine vessels that were sending construction materials to a warship that was grounded at Ren'ai Jiao in China's South China Sea in 1999 and has been sitting there for 24 years. It's not uncommon for the two countries to trade barbs every now and then in relevant waters, but things went a little further this time, as Philippine media raved about how CCG water cannoned their vessels and blamed China for the incident for days in a row, and some politicians took a tough line against Beijing, all of which took a serious toll on bilateral relations.
US Defense Secretary Austin had a phone conversation with his Philippine counterpart immediately after the incident, not only labeling China's blocking of the intruding Philippine vessels, which is a legitimate action of law enforcement, as coercive and adventurous, but also reiterating America's defense commitment to Manila. It's understandable that as a bullying power that is accustomed to interfering in other countries' sovereignty through military means, the US wouldn't miss such a good opportunity to tie Manila onto its anti-China bandwagon, which is in compliance with its pragmatic diplomacy that basically uses American allies as pawns. Having maritime disputes with China, being located close to China's Taiwan region and a traditional ally of the US deeply under its sway in all aspects, the Philippines naturally becomes Washington's ideal choice to act as a vanguard in its anti-China campaign.
Long years of colonial rule by the US have given the Philippines a comprehensive remake either politically, institutionally, linguistically or culturally. This, coupled with the strong connections with the US in military, media, educational and academic circles and the huge amounts of overseas Filipinos living in the US, has given the elite groups controlling the public discourse in the country an American perspective when they think about their country's affairs. To be specific, some politicians in Manila are trying to profit from both sides by walking a fine line between China and the US, and some even intend to pressure China by leveraging the competition between the two major countries. There are also some staunch pro-US forces that have downright put their bet on Uncle Sam, hoping it will emerge as the winner in the future major-country competition.
I think those Philippine speculators who try to pressure China by borrowing America's strengths and clout have forgotten one thing – perhaps intentionally so. That is, if a war broke out between China and the Philippines because of their disputes over the South China Sea, would the US stand up for the latter? Just look at how many senior officials Washington has sent to visit China in the past few months to steer the China-US relationship on track, or just remember that the US hasn't sent a single soldier to Ukraine despite the staggering amounts of weapons it provided in the form of military aid. Isn't it clear that Washington is going to great lengths to keep itself from engaging in armed conflicts with another major country? Will it change that for the Philippines, a country thousands of miles away from its homeland? Perhaps some Philippine politicians should bear this in mind – it's the grass that suffers when elephants fight. They'd better fully apprehend the consequences their country will be exposed to if it entangles itself into a storm of geopolitical security.
Some Philippine scholars who participated in the 9th "Manila Forum for China-Philippines Relations" supported dialogues between China and the Philippines, saying that history has proven that their territorial disputes can be settled through negotiations, and that Manila should not take sides between the world's two largest economies. It's fair to say that there are still some clear-minded people in the Philippines who have a rational idea of where the country's real and core interests lie. As they said, they are neither pro-US nor pro-China – they are pro-Philippines.
In fact, China and the Philippines have a high level of alignment in national interests given their close cultural, economic and trade connections, and they are totally capable of keeping their divergences under control as long as they have the will to, which was soon borne out by what happened later. On the very day when the forum kicked off, the Philippine side made a second replenishment to the grounded warship in Ren'ai Jiao, but this time without construction materials, and the CCG made special arrangements for the delivery of living necessities out of humanitarian considerations. The media hype subsided after that.
Sure enough, the US won't stop its practice of wedge driving and discord sowing, and the South China Sea may still experience storms and waves. In the face of an unprecedentedly complex and serious geopolitical situation, China must maintain strategic clarity and do a good job juggling the many variables and stakeholders involved in the South China Sea issue.
(Prof. Li Kaisheng is a senior fellow and vice-president of Shanghai Institutes for International Studies.)
Editor's note: Originally published on huanqiu.com, this article is translated from Chinese into English and edited by the China Military Online. The information and opinions in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of eng.chinamil.com.cn.