David and Goliath, or the Philippines and China

by Chris Zappone

This Washington Post lays out the background to the Philippines strategy of confronting China over territorial claims in the South China Sea.

Political experts here say the Philippines’s strategy on China is being mapped out by its foreign affairs secretary, Albert del Rosario, who attended New York University and served as ambassador in Washington. [President] Aquino is said to be fully on board with the policy.

The Philippines’ historical ties with the US raise suspicions that the Asian nation is being guided in its dealings with China by Washington. But the US has warned Manila not to think they have unlimited support in this area. And no wonder: you can also view the Philippines’ stance with China as a function of its volatile domestic politics.

Under the Philippines’s previous president, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, Beijing showered Manila with more than $2 billion in loans. Some of the money was meant for railroad projects. An additional $330 million was designed to fund a broadband network that would connect 25,000 municipal offices. As the money was flowing, the Philippines signed off on what Arroyo called a “diplomatic breakthrough” — a tripartite deal that allowed China and Vietnam to survey contested maritime territory near Philippine shores, with the hope of joint oil and gas development.

The goodwill collapsed in short order. The broadband deal was laced with corruption and kickbacks for Philippine officials, as a congressional investigation revealed. The joint surveying deal came under even fiercer attack, as opposition politicians and many prominent Filipinos said Arroyo had violated the constitution — by essentially giving away territory.

But to be honest, you could make the case that a lot of China’s actions in the South China Sea are a similar function of the nation’s domestic politics, in which appearing strong in the region reinforces the Chinese communist party’s standing.

But if there is any test case to watch in the South China Sea, it’s how the Philippines and China manage their dispute.