CHINA appears poised to collect against the multimillion-dollar investments and loans it has promised to the Philippines when President Rodrigo Duterte chairs the summit in Manila this week of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
An indication of how much is psychologically owed to China is President Duterte’s possibly skipping in his statement as chair of the ASEAN leaders’ meetings of the ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague invalidating Beijing’s claim over virtually all of the South China Sea.
Beijing is averse to the public discussion of the 2016 PCA award even if that was based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea that China and the Philippines, among more than 165 other nations, have signed.
The Associated Press has obtained the draft chair’s statement of Mr. Duterte for the summit. An AP report by Jim S. Gomez noted that while the draft cites the “serious concern” of some ASEAN leaders over escalating territorial disputes in the SCS, it glosses over the PCA award.
Aside from the Philippines, other ASEAN members locked in territorial conflicts with China and Taiwan are Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei.
As in the 2016 ASEAN summit in Vientiane, which is in Chinese sphere of influence, Beijing is reportedly pressuring Manila to ensure that the concluding communique does not mention the PCA ruling of 2016.
As petitioner and beneficiary of the award, the Philippines is the logical party to cite it in the inevitable discussion of territorial disputes. But will President Duterte, who may have sealed still undisclosed deals with China President Xi Jinping, allow it?
• Xi has Duterte under hypnotic spell?
THERE have been numerous occasions when Mr. Duterte retracted public statements or cancelled announced plans after Beijing objected or expressed its displeasure. The unusual influence that China has on President Duterte continues to amaze both his fans and critics.
Question now is if Mr. Duterte, who has veered to the left toward Beijing, will issue on Saturday a chair’s statement that has been sterilized of any mention of the favorable PCA award handed down, ironically, on petition of the Philippines.
The draft statement obtained by AP says in part: “We shared the serious concerns expressed by some leaders over recent developments and escalation of activities in the area which may further raise tensions and erode trust and confidence in the region.”
“The 20-page draft devotes fewer paragraphs and repeats language of concern used in past ASEAN communiques,” the AP said. The statement issued last year by Laos, previous chair, even had a longer discussion of the territorial conflicts and expressed concerns over “land reclamations.”
The “reclamations” must be referring to China’s rapid building (and militarizing) of artificial islands from reefs and shallow features in the Exclusive Economic Zones of its neighbors, including the Philippines whose leader it distracts with promises of aid, investments and easy loans.
Will national interest be served if President Duterte issues a sterilized communique at the conclusion of the ASEAN summit, and joins the Chinese dragon dance leading to the abandonment of Philippine territorial claims already affirmed at The Hague?
• ‘Insert PCA ruling into CoC frame’
FORMER Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario is one of the experts on the PCA case urging ASEAN leaders to make the award an integral part of the Code of Conduct framework being hammered out at the summit.
Del Rosario rejects the argument of laidback sectors that it is too late to undo China’s rapid buildup of artificial islands in strategic locations in the South China Sea through which some $5.3 trillion worth of trade passes annually.
The SCS is also vital to maritime powers insisting that that choke channel be left open to navigation and commerce.
The militarization of several newly constructed Chinese-occupied islands has added to the tension in the region and complicated the conflicting claims of China’s smaller neighbors, including the Philippines.
China wants to negotiate bilaterally its territorial disputes. This is one of the reasons why it keeps blocking a multilateral discussion such as one that is likely to happen if ASEAN formally takes up the issues, including the PCA ruling, as a group,
On the other hand, the United States has supported a multilateral approach such as along the lines of an ASEAN common front. This conflicts with China’s preferring to go bilateral.
Among China’s tactical moves is to take down objections of ASEAN members individually. Last year, it worked on Laos (then the summit chair) to prevent the forming of an ASEAN common front strengthened by the PCA award won at The Hague by the Philippines.
This year, China worked in advance on the Philippines (the chair this time). It found President Duterte, whose populist rhetoric resounded well with the Filipino masses, also ripe for picking in view of his personal disappointment with the US.
Chinese courtship went almost unchallenged as the US under the Obama administration was engrossed in a myriad disjointed preoccupations. Besides, the US found in then President Noynoy Aquino an ineffective implementer of US designs in the country.
The longer China is able to block the PCA ruling’s being moved to the fore, the more difficult it would be to boost the legal underpinning of the claim of the Philippines and similarly situated fellow ASEAN members against an aggressive China.
Will Mr. Duterte delay playing the PCA award card at the ASEAN summit?