The big question – Will the Philippines raise the issue of the ridiculous Chinese claim over the entirety of South China Sea at the APEC summit? Most Filipinos would likely believe that it’s the most opportune time to corner China regarding its territorial aggression in the presence of other world leaders. Will there be a showdown of claws and teeth at the summit?
Warm welcome for the Chinese leader
Those who are anticipating a showdown, unfortunately, are bound to get a major disappointment. President Aquino himself vowed to give a warm welcome for the Chinese delegate. Aquino pledged that he would show hospitality to the president of the People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping, and the rest of the Chinese delegation.
Days before the APEC week, the spokesman of the Department of Foreign (DOF) Affairs, Charles Jose, also said that the government recognizes that APEC is not the proper forum for the discussion of the sea row. Jose added that the government acknowledges that APEC is an economic forum so it is not the right platform for discussing issues related to political security. Jose’s statements have been issued after DOF Secretary Albert del Rosario had a meeting with his Chinese counterpart. There’s an agreement between the Philippine and Chinese governments not to bring up the territorial conflict at the summit. Jose added that the Aquino government is committed to being a good host to all the guests and that the Philippines will strive to make sure that President Xi’s APEC participation will be comfortable, safe and productive.
China actually asked for the banning of discussions on the South China issue
Decisively preemptive, China actually asked the Philippines to prevent discussions from turning to the conflict over the South China Sea. It’s a clear “request” from China to avoid the raising of “contentious issues.” Right, the Chinese have the gall to term the issue contentious when it’s their claim that is patently contentious and illegal. Wang Yi, the foreign minister of the People’s Republic of China, talked to his Filipino counterpart, Albert del Rosario, to have the South China Sea dispute excluded from the possibility of being discussed.
China refuses to internationalize the South China Sea conflict at the APEC meeting in line with their stand not to discuss it in any international forum. Asia’s biggest country continues to assert that the issue is a regional conflict so it should only be discussed by the parties involved. China argues that the involvement of international actors like the United States is unwelcome and unwarranted.
There are many reasons China is trying to prevent the internationalization of the territorial dispute. For one, it is believed that international law works against their interests. Analysts also believe that China fears that increased international attention will limit the flexibility to undertake unilateral and bilateral solutions. Internationalization, moreover, can provide convenient platform for interested parties such as Japan and the United States to openly criticize China.
China: Up to the Philippines to heal rift
Acting like the aggrieved party, China’s foreign minister said that it is up to the Philippines to do something about healing the rift with China after ties have been strained as the Philippines filed a case at a UN arbitration tribunal. For the Chinese Foreign Minister, “the person who caused the problem should solve it.” If only they realize that it’s their aggressive island building that’s been causing the rift. If only they realize that they are the “person who caused the problem.”
China continues to pursue bilateral talks as the only solution to the South China Sea conflict. Even as the arbitration tribunal at the Hague ruled that they have jurisdiction over the case filed by the Philippines, China remains firm in its stand that they will not participate in international legal proceedings. Basically, what China wants is for the Philippines to stop calling for a big brother to get involved and for the Philippines to simply submit to China’s whims and illegal claims.
US expects South China issue
Even as the Philippines and China agree that the South China Sea conflict will not be discussed, the United States expects it to crop up somehow. US State Department spokesman Mark Toner said that the issue will likely come up on the sidelines of the summit. Additionally, the US and the Philippines are set to discuss the defense cooperation deal during the APEC meeting, which does not quite jibe with the pronouncements made by the Department of Foreign Affairs spokesman about the event being not the appropriate venue for discussing political and security matters.
Should the Philippines raise the South China Sea issue?
In the presence of the Japanese Prime Minister and the United States President, the APEC event can serve as an excellent ground for testing the response of allies to the South China Sea issue being openly discussed. At the very least, the Philippines should subtly highlight the relevance of the conflict on international trade. The South China Sea provides the route for international trade amounting to around $5 trillion annually so there’s no way it can’t be considered relevant to the APEC discussions. China’s posturing and gradual attempt to establish 12-nautical-mile territorial waters need to be constantly challenged. The United States has already sailed a warship close to China’s artificial islands and has recently flown a pair of B-52 bombers near the fake islands. The Philippines should at least remind the world what China has been doing.
Strategic alliance with Vietnam
Next week, the Philippines will be signing an accord with Vietnam to form a strategic alliance that involves deeper economic ties and maritime cooperation. Vietnam, as history would bear out, has proven to be the most courageous opposition in China’s massive territorial grabbing. If the Philippines is too upright to not be a rude host by raising the South China Sea issue at the APEC meeting, perhaps working with Vietnam to imperceptibly do it is not a bad idea.
Rejecting bilateral talks but raring to get an audience with Xi
Interestingly, why is it that the Aquino government clearly states that it is unwilling to engage China in bilateral talks when President Aquino himself is always seeking to have a talk with the Chinese President? In a news conference, APEC National Organizing Committee Director-General Marciano Paynor said that President Aquino and President Xi Jinping will be sitting side by side, although he appeared to not want to highlight Aquino’s desire to personally talk to Xi by saying that it is a tradition for this and last year’s hosts to be seated next to each other.
The country’s leftist or “progressive” organizations, who are usually criticized by netizens for their lack of protests against the Chinese aggression, are and will be doing anti-China rallies before and during the APEC event. They are not giving any warm welcome for those who illegally occupy the territories of the Philippines. Of course, they will also be protesting against the “neo-imperialistic” and capitalistic Americans and other giant nations that they fear will be conniving against Philippine interests.
Pushing for an alternative pact
Clearly, the Chinese have no intentions of being confrontational at the APEC summit. However, they are trying to offer an alternative to the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which aims to create the world’s largest free trade area. The TPP does not include China and Russia. China wants to push for the Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific (FTAAP), which is perceived as the Chinese countermeasure to the United States pivot to Asia. Obviously, some power play is bound to happen. Let’s just hope we will be benefitting from the results.
Those who are expecting the APEC meeting to become a venue for confronting China will most likely be left disappointed. There are no indications of serious discussions on critical topics like China’s excessive territorial claims. Still, everybody is hoping that China can at least be reminded that it can’t just unilaterally decide to do whatever it pleases.