The Philippines and China: The Elephant in the Room

President Benigno Aquino of the Philippines arrived in Beijing today to commence a five-day state visit to China. The trip has been slated as a goodwill mission aimed at repairing strained relations and increasing economic ties between the two nations. President Aquino, leading a delegation of some 200 Philippine business leaders, and his Chinese counterparts intend to sign trade deals that would expand Sino–Philippine trade from the current level of about $13 billion to more than $60 billion by 2016. The Chinese, following a goal of seeking greater investment in Southeast Asia, are also expected to push for the Philippines to allow increased Chinese investment in mining and infrastructure development.

However, during these trade discussions, the elephant in the room will be the ongoing tensions in the South China Sea. In the past year, the Chinese leadership has stiffened its resolve regarding China’s sovereignty over its “blue soil.” Since February, it has challenged the Philippines in waters mere miles from Palawan Island at least nine times, with incidents including ramming of Philippine energy research ships, firing live rounds at fishing boats, and cutting Philippine oil survey cables.

To his credit, President Aquino has reaffirmed that he will raise the South China Sea issue with Chinese leaders. However, as with most presidential meetings, every effort will be made by interlocutors to prevent an embarrassing confrontation, so little progress can be expected—which suits the Chinese just fine—as Beijing prefers to maintain the status quo and handle the issue bilaterally. President Aquino’s call for the United Nations International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea to decide the matter has been flatly rejected by China.

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This is an important lesson for U.S. policymakers. China continues to represent both challenge and opportunity for Southeast Asia. Despite growing security concerns in the Philippines, President Aquino and the country’s business leaders simply cannot ignore the enormous opportunity that China’s rapid economic expansion provides. U.S. leaders must realize that U.S. treaty allies like Thailand and the Philippines can simultaneously pursue policies of building closer security relations with the U.S. while making the most of the Chinese market. If that approach is good for the U.S., it is certainly good for China’s neighbors.

Still, the U.S. and the Philippines understand that their alliance matters to the security of the Philippines and to the region. On this day, 60 years ago, the U.S. and the Philippines signed a mutual defense treaty; not since the Cold War has that treaty been so relevant.

The U.S. must continue to uphold the alliance by helping the Philippines develop a credible maritime defense capability—by including (but expanding well beyond) the provision of refurbished Coast Guard cutters; by maintaining its legal commitment to the defense of the Philippines; and by doing what is necessary to maintain U.S. naval leadership in the Western Pacific.

Finally, President Obama should extend an invitation to President Aquino for a state visit to Washington, D.C. America’s oldest treaty ally in Asia deserves this kind of respect and commitment.

As President Aquino will discover during his trip to Beijing, China is in this game for good. Washington must step to the plate and demonstrate that we are, too.

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