China features prominently in Philippines election campaign

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MANILA — A month before the Philippine presidential elections, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has urged the democratic Southeast Asian nation to avoid “disruption” in its largely friendly relationship with China under incumbent President Rodrigo Duterte .

During a meeting with Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr, the senior Chinese diplomat stressed the need for “continuity and stability” as well as a “good neighborly and friendly policy” between the two nations.

The comments came weeks after the Philippines filed diplomatic protests over alleged harassment of Philippine patrol vessels by the Chinese Coast Guard in the South China Sea. A Philippine research vessel was also reportedly in the shadow of the Chinese coast guard in northern Philippine waters near Taiwan.

However, Beijing’s biggest concern is the potential rise of a more hostile administration after Duterte resigns later this year. Presidential candidates Manila Mayor Francisco “Isko” Moreno and Vice President Lenor “Leni” Robredo, the de facto opposition leader, have both called for a tougher stance on of China, including the possibility of increasing the victory of the arbitral tribunal of the Philippines in 2016. in The Hague in their dispute over the South China Sea.

Even presidential favorite Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr, who previously backed the incumbent’s pro-China diplomacy, has hardened his rhetorical stance, recently promising to deploy warships to disputed areas to “show [to] China that we defend what we consider [as] our territorial waters.

Over the past six years, Duterte has assiduously pursued warmer ties with Beijing at Washington’s expense. While his pivot to China was rooted in personal grievances and ideological antipathy toward the West, Duterte was also determined to enlist Beijing as his top boss amid growing tensions with Washington over democracy and human rights issues. the man. However, his years-long strategic flirtation with Beijing was largely in vain.

China’s promises of large-scale investment have proven illusory. Many Chinese-led infrastructure projects have faced enormous opposition due to concerns about high interest rates, sovereignty-threatening provisions, reliance on shady contractors and even government documents. incomplete invitation to tender.

Meanwhile, China has stepped up its militarization of disputed land features across the South China Sea while regularly deploying an armada of paramilitary vessels to harass Filipino fishermen and warships.

Chinese ships gather near a disputed reef with the Philippines in the South China Sea on March 22, 2021. Photo: Handout / Satellite Image ©2021 Maxar Technologies / AFP

The result is China’s deep unpopularity among average Filipinos, who largely view the Asian superpower as an opportunistic neighbor and, in the words of the Philippine Secretary of Defense Delfin Lorenzana, even an aggressive tyrant.

In response, the Philippine defense establishment and strategic elite not only reversed Duterte’s earlier decision to forfeit a key defense deal with Washington, but also gradually restored defense cooperation with the sole ally. of the country by treaty.

Over the past week, the two allies have conducted their biggest war games in recent memory, including amphibious exercises with the clear goal of bolstering collective deterrence against further Chinese adventurism in Philippine waters. Over the weekend, the Philippines and Japan, another U.S. ally, are also expected to conduct their first-ever “Two Plus Two” dialogue to bolster defense and burgeoning strategic cooperation.

In Beijing, there are worries about a potential sea change in the largely Philippines-friendly China policy once Duterte leaves office.

“China always regards the Philippines as a priority in its neighborhood diplomacy… Both sides should eliminate unrest, calmly and properly handle differences, and not let them affect the overall situation of China-Philippines relations,” the minister said. of Foreign Affairs Wang to his Philippine counterpart during their meeting this week, insisting that ongoing maritime disputes should be placed “in the right place” without disrupting overall relations.

“At present, it is particularly necessary to prevent inappropriate measures from interfering with or even damaging relations between the two countries and the stability of the South China Sea,” he added. , just weeks after Manila summoned China’s top envoy to protest what he said was “illegal intrusion” by Chinese ships.

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, presidential election campaigns in the Philippines have been largely suppressed. But the race has intensified in recent weeks, especially as the opposition seeks to stage another upset election against the Marcoses. The latest surveys show Robredo firmly in second place after an almost double-digit increase in his ratings.

Philippine Vice President Leni Robredo raised her voice against China during the election campaign. Photo: AFP/Ted Aljibe

On the surface, China must be pleased with several presidential candidates signaling continuity in bilateral relations. Former presidential spokesman and undersecretary for foreign affairs Ernesto Abella, a close ally of Duterte, recently criticized the Filipino-American “Balikatan” war games as potentially provocative and damaging to bilateral relations with Beijing.

For his part, leftist candidate Leody De Guzman has called for the abrogation of the Philippines’ alliance treaty with Washington. “China must stop its incursions and respect [international law]. But we should also remove military exercises with the United States and even Japan and Australia in the [South China Sea]… we cannot strengthen our position against China if the United States is there,” the union leader added.

Marcos Jr, the undisputed front-runner in the presidential race, is widely regarded as China’s favorite candidate. Last year, the ex-dictator’s son stressed the need for a “bilateral consensus” with China on South China Sea disputes without providing details on what that would mean.

“The policy of engagement led by the Duterte government, although criticized, is the right way to go,” he said ahead of his official bid for the top job last year. “If we fight [with China], this war will be over. In less than a week, we will lose. Let’s not think that way,” Marcos said, emphasizing his commitment to dialogue rather than confrontation.

The former senator’s late father, Ferdinand Marcos, was among the first US allies to normalize bilateral relations with communist China at the height of the Cold War. Marcos Jr personally accompanied his father during the then-Philippine dictator’s high-profile meeting with Mao Zedong in Beijing.

As lords of the northern province of Ilocos, a key node in Beijing’s proposed Maritime Silk Road Initiative (MSRI), the Marcos have also maintained warm economic ties with China over the decades.

Nevertheless, the Marcos, unlike the Dutertes, are culturally oriented towards the West. Although resentful of the United States’ perceived abandonment of its patriarch during the 1986 “people power” revolution and facing various accusations of corruption in the United States, many Marcos attended elite universities and maintained relationships with high society across the West.

A shrewd politician who enjoys unprecedented support from the electorate, Marcos Jr has nonetheless recalibrated his rhetoric in recent weeks. Aware of growing anti-Beijing sentiments in his country and growing frustration among the military and strategic elite over disputes in the South China Sea, Marcos Jr recently pointed to the need to expand the country’s “military presence” to protect Filipino fishermen and resources in disputed areas. .

Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos Jr addresses the crowd on July 1, 2019 at Rizal Park, Ermita, Manila, Philippines. Photo: AFP Forum via NurPhoto / Artur Widak

His two main rivals, Robredo and Moreno, have raised the bar in recent weeks by taking an increasingly nationalist stance on disputes in the South China Sea. Unlike Marcos Jr, both candidates have consistently stressed the need to revitalize defense and strategic cooperation with traditional partners, including the United States, Australia, Japan, South Korea and Europe.

During last weekend’s debate, which was notably ignored by Marcos Jr, both candidates took tough stances on China, signaling a potential shift in the Philippines’ attitude toward the Asian powerhouse if elected.

“[T]here is a place [to seek help from]: United Nations General Assembly. Vote for me as president and I will make sure to go to the General Assembly and insist that all members of the United Nations recognize The Hague decision,” Moreno said in a mixture of English and of Filipino, vowing to invoke the 2016 United Nations. Tribunal for the Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) ruling against China.

“Any foreign vessel entering our sovereign territory, I will ensure that it will be a decorative object under the sea in the Philippine ocean,” Moreno said, seeking to emulate the aggressive “sink the boat” strategy of the Indonesia against foreign fishing vessels, including from China.

For his part, Robredo pushed for a legally binding code of conduct (COC) for the South China Sea based on the 2016 arbitration tribunal ruling.

“It is difficult to finalize a code of conduct because there are countries which naturally resist this. But in my opinion, the Philippines should lead here because we are the ones with the referee’s decision,” she said. “We need to leverage the arbitration award to convince our ASEAN neighbors to keep fighting for this.”

Follow Richard Javad Heydarian on Twitter at @Richeydarian

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