Can Du30 refocus US-China rivalry?

- Federico D. Pascual Jr. (The Philippine Star) - May 19, 2016 - 12:00am

THE RISE on June 30 of a new Philippine president may just provide the superpowers United States and China an opportunity – or an excuse – for easing their stiffening stance on territorial and security issues in the South China Sea.

As incoming president without prior commitments, Davao City Mayor Rody Duterte need not continue the Aquino administration’s adhering to the White House game plan associated with the US pivot to the Asia-Pacific hemisphere.

Duterte could soon find himself in the unlikely role of a moderating influence in the high-stakes power poker where Washington and Beijing play with the fate of Asia, home of some 60 percent (4.4 billion) of the world’s population.

How will the mayor of Davao City (pop 1.7 million) perform as president of a small country of 102 million navigating the narrow space between the contending superpowers?

Duterte, who is not that steeped yet in diplomacy, will find it useful to refrain from joking or making indelicate off-the-cuff remarks until he has been fully briefed on the subject and its ramifications.

His disclosing his intention to ask US Ambassador Philip Goldberg “Are you with us?” when the envoy comes calling at his Davao retreat, or later in Malacañang, may sound grating to the ears of diplomats. (But that could be just a calculated feint of the brash mayor.)

That “somos o no somos?” line must be read in the context of the call on Duterte last Tuesday of China Ambassador Zhao Jianhua, who said: “China and Philippines are good neighbors, partners and relatives, and the Chinese side is looking forward to working with the Philippine side.”

He added that Beijing and Manila should work closely in “resolving differences, deepening traditional friendship and promoting mutually beneficial cooperation.” We like to think that those words are a preview of wider two-way avenues opening up.

• Time to focus on trade, investments

DUTERTE should strive to shift emphasis in dialogue with Washington and Beijing from security issues to upgraded trade and investments. He can also follow up with China his ideas about railroad lines in Luzon and Mindanao as well as joint mineral exploration.

Instead of a resort to, or a threat of, gunboat diplomacy, the two powers should welcome a change of focus, occasioned by a Duterte. There is need to cool down the tenor of the backyard quarrel of neighbors.

Talking of neighbors, it is noteworthy that China and the Philippines have been neighbors since the earth came to be, with the US entering the Pacific neighborhood only much later. That says a lot about Philippine-Chinese relations.

In 2015, while China-Asia trade fell 7.8 percent and China-ASEAN trade by 1.7 percent, the Philippines was one of only four ASEAN members that retained a positive trade growth with the neighbor. China was the Philippines’ No. 2 trading partner, No. 1 import source, and No. 3 export market in 2015.

Stimulating trade and investment – also encouraging enhanced people-to-people contact – may help create a climate favorable to finding a resolution of the conflict over Panatag (Scarborough) shoal which the Aquino administration “lost” to China by default in 2012.

(Watch what Duterte might do after he gets a full report on the Panatag debacle made unmanageable by the meddling of amateur diplomats and clueless people in the Palace.)

Without saying that other disputed areas are less important, Duterte should make top priority of Panatag, a traditional Filipino fishing ground just 120 nautical miles off the Zambales coast, well within the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone. It is comparatively easier to recover.

In the give and take of amicable direct talks, Duterte may yet regain Panatag and proceed to discuss other problems without any hint of possible military action under the 1951 Phl-US Mutual Defense Pact.

We know it is really not as simple as that, especially with sovereignty issues and national pride (loss of face to Asians) intruding. We are just raising the possibility that with a new man in Malacañang, new approaches can be explored.

This also does not mean putting on hold the upgrading of defense capability of the armed forces. This area has received a big boost during the term of President Noynoy Aquino with the realization in Washington of the need to equip properly a military ally.

• Follow US advice of multilateral talks?

DUTERTE must face the reality that the 10-member Association Southeast Asian Nations is no longer, or is not yet, an alliance wholly under the spell of Washington. Some members from the Indochinese peninsula make no bones about being in the shadow of Beijing.

Outgoing President Aquino has followed White House advice for the Philippines not to embark on direct talks, but to use the multilateral front of ASEAN, in negotiating territorial disputes with China.

But Duterte once mentioned his being open to direct negotiations with Beijing on a number of bilateral questions. He should keep that option open despite expected US pressure against it.

We see the possibility that a simple-living but thoughtful man from Mindanao may yet provide the opportunity, or call it an excuse, for both China and the US shuffling backwards or sideways to avoid a military confrontation that neither of them wants.

Playing a third-party role in this endeavor would require consummate skills for the new Philippine leader. With his heart beating for his people, we think however, his pragmatic mind would follow and show him the way.

The optimism we try to exude here is based on the assumption that despite their occasional warlike noise, neither the US nor China wants to go to war over waters even if made strategic by their location, the vast mineral resources underneath, and the estimated two-thirds of the world trade passing over them.

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ADVISORY: To access Postscript archives, go to www.manilamail.com (if necessary, copy/paste the url on your browser). Follow us on Twitter.com/@FDPascual. Email feedback to fdp333@yahoo.com

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