Philippines-China ties: What went wrong?

Posted at 04/28/14 10:11 PM

Last of a 2-part series; click here for part 1

“IS this how the Philippines should deal with its powerhouse neighbor?”

Former President Fidel V. Ramos raised this question in 2011 following conflicting reports on the dates of President Benigno S. Aquino’s state visit to China.

But back then, relations between the Philippines and China were still in good shape. Hu Jintao was then the Chinese president. China was in fact the first to invite Aquino to a state visit soon after his inauguration in June 2010. “It means they were eager to enhance relations with the Philippines,” says former UN Security Council President Lauro Baja Jr. “We should have taken advantage of that.”

But in less than four years, relations quickly went from “good” to “seriously damaged.”

What went wrong?

Aquino had barely warmed his seat when his administration faced its first major challenge: the Manila hostage crisis in August 2010 resulted in the death of 9 people, 8 of them Chinese from Hong Kong.

In March 2011, 3 Filipino drug mules were executed in China despite appeals made by Aquino for a commutation of their sentence.

Yet these incidents did little damage, if at all, to relations of the two countries. “The case of drug mules, the hostage-taking incident, these are police enforcement situations with almost no foreign policy content,” says Baja.

Cabinet Secretary Rene Almendras recalls China’s opening salvo under the Aquino administration was in early 2011. “One of our exploration vessels was harassed,” Almendras told ANC, referring to an incident in Reed Bank where an oil exploration vessel commissioned by the Department of Energy was blocked by two Chinese patrol vessels.

“Since then I’ve had, at the energy department, my own encounters with representatives from China. Some were not pleasant but we remained cool and very Filipino.”


Indeed, relations continued to sour in the coming months.

The Philippines formally protested China’s 9-dash line claim, Aquino rescheduled his state visit to China, the North Rail project approved under the Arroyo administration and funded by soft loans from China was deemed anomalous and scrapped. Chinese fishing vessels continued to venture to disputed areas accompanied by their naval ships. The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) was lodging one diplomatic protest after another nearly every week.

“China is portrayed in the Philippines as a bully engaging in coercion and harassment,” says Chito Sta. Romana, former Beijing Bureau Chief of American network ABC. “But in China, the Philippines is portrayed as a troublemaker, a provocateur, and a pawn for US strategy.”

In September 2011, Aquino undertook a state visit to China, and an agreement was signed with President Hu that the maritime dispute would be treated as a separate issue from trade, culture and people-to-people ties.

Yet in April 2012, things took a different path, less than a year before Hu turned over the leadership to Xi Jinping.

A Philippine navy surveillance aircraft had spotted eight Chinese fishing vessels on Panatag shoal. The warship BRP Gregorio del Pilar was dispatched to inspect the boats, but two Chinese surveillance ships arrived, wedged themselves between the Del Pilar and the fishing vessels, and prevented the arrest of the Chinese fishermen and the confiscation of a massive haul of endangered species. The Philippines and China both claim sovereignty and jurisdiction over the area, which China calls Huangyan Island.

A standoff ensued, lasting several weeks. While Philippine ships eventually left the shoal, tensions between the two countries came close to boiling point because Chinese ships stayed on. ”That was a deal promoted by the US that went awry because we left, but (China) didn’t leave,” Baja said.

“Yung away tungkol sa maritime waters, naging focus na ng relasyon ng dalawang bansa. Yung dalawang panig, nagpatigasan,” says Sta. Romana.

Baja says the situation was exacerbated by pronouncements that Hainan would administer the enforcement of maritime laws in the South China Sea. Inflammatory statements from both Chinese and Philippine officials did not help either.

“We talk too much and those who talk are either uninformed or uninitiated. These have repercussions not just in bilateral relations but in our image in the international community. We tend to say the most inane things. Perhaps even the President has not controlled himself in his pronouncements,” Baja says.


Throughout the difficulties faced by the two countries, there was no Philippine ambassador to Beijing. A charge d’affaires had been left to deal with crucial matters.

President Aquino had appointed businessman Domingo Lee to the top post in Beijing in April 2011, but Lee still failed to get the nod of the Commission on Appointments even after a year. Lee’s appointment was eventually withdrawn.

Career diplomat Sonia Brady was subsequently appointed Ambassador, presenting her credentials in July 2012. But she barely got any work done when she suffered a stroke and was recalled.

Another career diplomat, Erlinda Basilio, was appointed next. She presented her credentials to President Xi in April 2013. But by then, observers say, there was little she could do to salvage relations.


In January 2013, the Philippines sued China over the maritime dispute before a UN tribunal. Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said the Philippines had exhausted almost all political and diplomatic avenues prior to seeking arbitration.

To the Chinese, this was an unfriendly act.

“Saving face is very important to the Chinese,” says Sta. Romana. ”They view this as an attempt to publicly humiliate China before the world, hence the Chinese anger.

“Pero kaya naman tayo tumuloy sa arbitration dahil sa Panatag shoal. Kasi umatras tayo pero sila, hindi umatras. Gusto natin sila paalisin ngayon kasi hawak nila ito pero di natin kaya gamitin ang coast guard or navy. Kaya we had to choose arbitration,” Sta. Romana explains.

Ramos, for one, supports the move to seek arbitration. “Yun ay kailangan to establish our position. But let’s not stop there,” the former president says. “Ang kulang ay long-term strategy. Sa ngayon puro short term eh. Mayroon tayong pagkukulang kung ganyan ang pananaw ng mga lider ngayon. We must think strategic.”

Ramos recalls how his administration kept the maritime dispute at bay. “‘Di lang official diplomacy through DFA. We used people-to-people approaches, leader-to- leader approaches, education-to-education approaches, business-to-business approaches, general-to-general approaches. Dapat ganun eh.”

A senior government source says only diplomatic channels are being utilized after the Panatag shoal standoff.

“The secretary doesn’t believe in special envoys," says the source who requested anonymity. “He thinks we don’t need intermediaries. He says DFA should be the only one talking to China. Until now, there are no intermediaries.”

An Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement signed Monday (April 28) between the Philippines and US is expected to further complicate relations.

Baja believes communication is key. He says high level talks between Aquino and Hu immediately after the standoff began at Panatag shoal would have made all the difference. “Even by phone, there’s nothing more positive than personal contact between two heads,“ he says.

Rapport between Del Rosario and Foreign Minister Wang Yi would have been helpful as well, says Baja. But he senses there is none. “Fairly or unfairly, Beijing perceives Secretary del Rosario as too pro-American. It’s an initial disadvantage for him.”


When the Philippines filed a 4,000-page legal document before the UN arbitration panel on March 30, 2014, China said the move “seriously damaged” relations and warned of consequences. The day before, Chinese ships blocked a civilian boat en route to Ayungin Shoal to deliver supplies to Philippine soldiers stationed at the grounded BRP Sierra Madre. The incident was documented by journalists and broadcast for the world to see.

“Mula ng nangyari yung standoff sa Panatag shoal, pababa na yung relations ng Philippines and China. Pero kung nuon mababa, ngayon mas mababa pa. Ito na ang pinaka-mababang antas na naabot ng ating bansa mula 1975,” says Sta. Romana.

While the US, Japan and European Union have issued statements supporting the move to take the dispute to arbitration, Baja says the Philippines should have secured clear, categorical support of Association of Southeast Asian (ASEAN) nations before suing China. “It would have sent a message to China that we are not alone. “

To date, not a single ASEAN member has issued a statement categorically supporting the Philippines move to sue China.

Sta. Romana offers an explanation: “The goal of China is, huwag sumunod sa Philippines ang ibang claimant countries sa ASEAN like Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia. Kaya ang ginagawa ng China is doon ngayon binubuhos ang aid, loans, investment. Gusto nilang i-discourage and dissuade them from following us. That’s why nagiisa tayo.”


Whatever the arbitration panel decides, it will all boil down to talking to China. There is no mechanism in place to enforce the panel’s decision.

“Eventually it will come down to bilateral talks between the Philippines and China which should have been done before, so we’re back to square one,” Baja says.

“We need to keep people-to-people channels open between journalists, intellectuals, scholars, women, youth and scientists especially marine scientists who can help in preservation of marine resources,” says Sta. Romana. “Retired officials hopefully can still help keep channels of communication open. Then, there’s the private sector, the businessmen.“

Baja, too, believes Filipino-Chinese Taipans could play a key role.

“There must be contact among the sort of people who are in a position to shape or remedy the situation and come up with an interim arrangement,” he says. “These Taipans could exert valuable moral and personal influence not just with our government but because of their investments, culture and affinity with china, they can also talk to Chinese leadership,” says Baja.

But the DFA is hesitant to pursue that path. “There’s that suspicion some Tapians might be pro-China,” the senior government source said without naming names.

Ultimately, the Philippines is counting on the international community to put pressure on China to do the right thing.