Frenemies
FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - July 27, 2019 - 12:00am

Critics of President Duterte’s China policy ask him to copy Vietnam, probably imagining that country is constantly screeching and whining and confronting the regional superpower.

It is true that Vietnam and China have come to blows several times in the past, first when Beijing sent an expeditionary force across the border to “punish” her tough Indochinese neighbor and then when Hanoi sent in commandos to eject a Chinese garrison from one of the Paracel islands Vietnam claims.

But over the past several years, Vietnam has pursued a more tempered, more nuanced and more pragmatic approach toward her powerful northern neighbor. Call it anger management. Or credit the Vietnamese with the sophistication of recognizing China as a “frenemy” – both friend and enemy.

Some Filipinos normally assume that the US will have our backs if we maintain a confrontational stance toward the Asian superpower. They think we can do careless diplomacy and then invoke the Mutual Defense Treaty to bring the Americans into the fray should a skirmish break out. President Duterte recently mocked that sort of attitude when, last month, with a great deal of sarcasm, he dared the US to fire the first shot in the Spratlys.

They will not do that, of course. Washington has been very careful in avoiding recognizing Philippine sovereignty over the contested South China Sea reefs and rocks. The Mutual Defense Treaty covers only the core territory of the Philippines. It does not even include the “exclusive economic zone” we claim under the terms of the UN Convention on the Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS). The US is not a signatory to the UNCLOS.

Vietnam, for her part, does not have a mutual defense treaty to bank on. Because of that, she has had to make her strategic calculations sharply and well.

While unremitting in her South China Sea claims, Vietnam has been very calculating in her bilateral relationship with China.

In 2017, Vietnam and its oil company PetroVietnam granted Spanish oil company Repsol the right to explore for oil and drill test wells in a block within territory in the Spratlys that she claims. Beijing warned Vietnam it would attack her bases in the Spratlys if the drilling continued. Hanoi promptly stopped the commercial exploration.

In March 2018, Hanoi again attempted to conduct test drilling. Beijing issued the same warning. The oil project was scrapped. Hanoi chose to bide its time.

Last week, another confrontation broke out between Hanoi and Beijing over the marine survey conducted by the Chinese ship Haiyang Dizhi 8. China’s foreign ministry issued a statement that read: “China resolutely safeguards its sovereignty and maritime rights, and at the same time uphold controlling disputes with relevant countries via negotiations and consultation” (emphasis mine). The Vietnamese foreign ministry promptly retorted: “Without Vietnam’s permission, all actions undertaken for foreign parties in Vietnamese waters have no legal effect…”

Those two apparently hostile statements, read carefully, actually open the door to negotiations down the road. Both parties are, after all, pragmatic players and will work out suitable solutions down the road guaranteeing everyone’s satisfaction.

Vietnam and China are the best of “frenemies.” China is the top source of investments in Vietnam. These investments drive one of the most spectacular growth stories in the region.

This partnership will continue to prosper in the coming years, given economic realities. Each side will continue with “negotiations and consultation” as they move forward with their tight economic embrace.

Chinese President Xi Jinping assured his country’s economic partners late last year that China will continue to “lower tariffs, broaden market access and import more” to the tune of $30 trillion worth of goods and $10 trillion worth of services over the next 15 years. He likewise reaffirmed his country’s policy of achieving trade balance with China’s closest trading partners.

That should be music to Vietnamese ears – and to ours, too.

During a recent meeting between Duterte and Xi, the Filipino president revealed that the Chinese leader expressed openness to joint oil exploration and development off Reed Bank. Xi was amenable to a 60-40 sharing in favor of the Philippines. That is certainly better than the 10-90 sharing in favor of Shell and Texaco for the Malampaya yield.

Hanoi will surely be paying very close attention to this possibility – and the benefit all claimant countries might win from cooperation. They might soon be able to return to their oil exploration on the basis of consultation and negotiations with their greatest “frenemy.” 

Pragmatism instead of shrill posturing is more productive in the long run.

Kudos

Meralco’s communications and public relations effort was again recognized as one of the best in Asia. The PR Asia Awards 2019 recognized Meralco’s effort The Best In-House PR Team. This is the third time the power distributor’s effort was given this award.

Meralco is a sister-company of this paper.

The distribution utility’s advocacy-driven communications effort helped build an informed customer base and delivered the company’s narrative to a larger public. Among the most noteworthy of company’s communications programs is the Meralco Advisory, a monthly infomercial that shared movements in power rates along with helpful customer tips for more efficient power use.

Meralco’s team maintained continuous customer service communications, broadcast corporate social responsibility programs involving household and school electrification, provided the wider public energy education, instilled disaster preparedness, supported relief operations and conducted power supply advocacy. In this way, the customers felt they were in constant touch with their power distributor.

Meralco’s public diplomacy sets the standard for other companies.

CHINA MERALCO
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