Trade ties with PHL unlikely to temper China’s sea claims

By Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza, Reporter

BOOSTING trade with China would unlikely temper its expansive activities in Philippine-claimed waters in the South China Sea, foreign policy and security analysts said, citing Manila’s relationship with Beijing under the former administration.

The Philippines’ experience under former President Rodrigo R. Duterte showed that the country does not have “enough economic leverage over China” to influence its assertiveness in the West Philippine Sea, an area of the South China Sea that Manila legally claims, Joseph Herman S. Kraft, former chair of the University of the Philippines’ political science department, said in a Viber message.

“Trying to strengthen economic relations with China is well and good but any expectations that this will drastically change their behavior towards the Philippines in the West Philippine Sea seems to be unfounded by our recent history with them,” he said.

Maritime tension was recently heightened after a near-collision incident between a Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) ship and a Philippine patrol vessel carrying journalists on April 23.

The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) reported that a CCG ship maintained a perilous distance of 50 yards from the Philippine vessel BRP Malapascua at the Second Thomas Shoal, which is within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.

The incident happened just a day after Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang met with President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr. in Manila where they supposedly agreed to establish more “lines of communications.”

The PCG had also spotted a swarm of over 100 Chinese vessels during its April 18-24 journey in the West Philippine Sea.

Security expert Rommel C. Banlaoi, on the other hand, said the Philippines should boost its trade partnerships with China to “soften its actions” in the West Philippine Sea.

“The more trading partners a country has, the less likely it will be engaged in a war,” he said, citing a study conducted by Stanford University correlating economic and war data.

The study underscored that “most countries tended not to go to war with trading partners” and that “the more trading partners a country had, in general, the fewer wars they had.”

“Dealing with China requires the use of all sources of national power and economic power is just one component,” Mr. Banlaoi said. 

China is the Philippines’ largest trading partner, with the two countries’ total trade value amounting to $2,543.16 in February. 

Philippine exports to China hit $611.59 million that month, while imports reached $1.93 billion.

“Deepening economic relations with China is welcome but the Philippine government must continue to exercise caution in its engagements with China,” Dindo C. Manhit, president of Manila-based think tank Stratbase ADR, said via Messenger chat.

“Economic cooperation cannot mask the security risks that result from China’s aggressiveness in the West Philippine Sea.”

He said the Duterte administration’s attempts to deepen economic ties with China through its appeasement policy did not prevent China’s aggressive actions and illicit activities in the West Philippine Sea.

Mr. Duterte led a foreign policy pivot to China when he took office in 2016. He had been criticized for gambling Philippine territories to appease China in exchange of investment pledges that only few had materialized.

“Investments as well as big-ticket infrastructure projects pledged by Beijing also did not materialize,” said Mr. Manhit.

Chester B. Cabalza, founding president of the Manila-based International Development and Security Cooperation, said the Philippines should actively diversify its trade away from China and look at other countries in terms of infrastructure partnerships.

He noted that Japan remains the biggest partner of the Philippines when it comes to infrastructure.

“In a way, it was the loss of China over its competitor Japan in infrastructure projects. Thus, Filipinos have more faith on Japanese technology and infrastructures over China.”

Mr. Cabalza urged the Philippine government to look at alternative partners for infrastructure projects that are subject to Chinese financing.

“The escalating conflict in the West Philippine Sea could have a bearing on our infrastructure projects as China may delay its financing and construction,” he said. “But it’s good thing that the Philippines has alternative partners for infrastructure projects. Japan and Korea are among the biggest supporters of Manila’s infrastructure projects.”

Mr. Cabalza said Manila should remain “militant and uncompromising” in its sea dispute with China and diversify its economic partnerships. 

Mr. Marcos left Manila on Sunday for a five-day official visit to Washington, where he had a meeting with US President Joseph R. Biden and other officials.

Tension between the US and China has increased after Mr. Marcos announced a decision in February to give Washington access to four more sites under the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).

Aside from being vocal against China’s expansive activities in the South China Sea, the US has also criticized the Asian superpower’s aggression against self-ruled Taiwan.

China has criticized the EDCA expansion, accusing Washington of endangering “regional peace and stability.”

Mr. Marcos, on Tuesday, said Manila’s security cooperation with Washington would “just keep going” amid “tensions” in the Asia-Pacific region.

China’s aggression in the South China Sea areas legally claimed by Manila “is one of the major issues that we have to face back home,” he told reporters during a meeting with US Vice President Kamala Harris, based on a transcript from the Presidential Communications Office.