By Kalinga Seneviratne
Philippines’ outspoken President Rodrigo Duterte while unplugging U.S. President’s much-publicized “Pivot to Asia”, has also challenged the United States to help promote cooperation in the region not confrontation.
Duterte provoked alarm in diplomatic circles last month (October) by announcing his country’s “separation” from the United States and realignment with China while on a visit to Beijing.
Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak has also signaled a similar realignment of foreign policy during a visit to Beijing. In a commentary published in the China Daily he said that former colonial powers should not be lecturing to countries they once exploited on running their internal affairs.
In wooing China, both Asian leaders are expressing their displeasure at U.S.’s double standards in lecturing on human rights and corruption to Asian leaders while they fail to address their own violations of these principles both at home and abroad.
During his three-day visit to the neighbouring Asian powerhouse, Duterte was given red carpet treatment by Chinese President Xi Jinping, had several meetings with Chinese companies and gave a keynote address to a business forum attended by Filipino and Chinese businessmen. Several Cabinet secretaries and 300 Filipino business leaders also accompanied him on the trip.
Barely a week later, Razak arrived in Beijing with warm words for the hosts and calling himself a “true friend” of China while expressing his determination to take the relationship between the two neighbours to “new heights”, thus echoing a similar sentiment expressed by his fellow ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) leader Duterte.
During Duterte’s visit, watched by the two presidents at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Cabinet secretaries of the two countries signed investment and aid agreements worth some US$ 24 billion. Later during a meeting between Xi and Duterte, which lasted longer than scheduled, the two leaders are believed to have discussed the contentious issue of fishing rights in the Scarborough Shoal area of South China Sea whose sovereignty is contested by both countries.
These discussions perhaps dealt the heaviest blow to Obama’s “Pivot to Asia” because the U.S. was using this issue to trigger a conflict between the two Asian neighbours and sell arms to the Philippines as well as station U.S. Marines on the Philippines territory. U.S. has also been wooing Malaysia and Vietnam for the same purpose.
China effectively took control of Scarborough in 2012 after its ships had a tense standoff with Philippine vessels. Since then, Chinese coast guard ships have guarded the shoal, blocking and driving away Filipino fishermen,
U.S. was instrumental in persuading Duterte’s predecessor President Benigno Aquino to take the ownership rights issue to International arbitration in 2013 and won a landmark decision in July this year in Philippines’ favour. China ignored the ruling by the tribunal and continued shooing Filipinos away from the shoal. But, upon his return from Beijing, Duterte told Filipino fishermen that they “may” be able to return to the Chinese-held Scarborough Shoal in a few days”.
He also told them that while both sides did not budge on their claims to sovereignty of the sea, Duterte cited the Chinese as saying: “We can resolve this case peacefully, no fighting, no blood and it will take time.” Duterte said he responded by saying, “It’s OK … we’ll discuss the award that we got someday and we won’t get out of this document … we won in the ownership.”
Meanwhile, Filipino fishermen have been able to fish unmolested at Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea while Chinese government vessels have patrolled nearby. The Philippines’ national security adviser Hermogenes Esperon has told the media in Manila that “the coastguard of China is there, but their navy is gone. And now, our fishermen are no longer being accosted, no longer being forced out, so we can say things are now friendly.”
Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying has also acknowledged that the relationship has changed. “Relations between China and the Philippines have comprehensively improved, and under such a situation, China has already made some proper arrangements with regards to issues of concern to President Duterte,” she said in a statement to the media from Beijing.
Duterte has been incensed by U.S. criticism of his war on drugs and told the U.S. and UN Human Rights Council to “go to hell” when they raised human rights concerns. China by contrast is giving the Philippines financial aid to enable Duterte to carry out his ambitious anti-drug campaign.
The two nations signed an agreement in Beijing under which China will give the Duterte administration US$15million for “implementing projects to strengthen its war on illegal drugs and in law enforcement security cooperation between these two countries”.
Just a week before Duterte’s visit to China end of October, the Philippines announced plans to open in November what it called a “mega” drug rehabilitation facility, funded by a Chinese philanthropist and real estate developer Huang Rulun, to treat up to 10,000 patients as part of Duterte’s war on drugs.
The center is to be located in a military camp north of the capital Manila, which is believed to have been earmarked by Duterte’s predecessor Aquino to station U.S. Marines.
While Duterte’s comments in Beijing about a “separation from U.S.” was interpreted by the international media as a sort of a diplomatic rift between the two former strong allies, Duterte explained upon his return to his hometown of Davoa that what he meant to say was that he will not follow a foreign policy that is influenced by the U.S. So far the Philippines has been taking cue from the U.S. in framing its foreign policies, but “I will not follow” them, he added.
Meanwhile, during the Malaysian leader Razak’s visit to Beijing 14 government-to-government cooperation agreements have been signed that includes cooperation in railway upgrading and oil and gas projects in East Malaysia. But, the biggest deal was the Malaysian government’s “landmark” decision to enter into a two-year defence deal with China to buy and build four littoral mission ships to help them patrol the neighbouring seas.
China’s Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs Liu Zhenmin told reporters accompanying the Malaysian Prime Minister that this naval defense cooperation deal “will help to bring stability to the South China Sea (and it) shows there is a high level of trust between the two countries”. Liu also revealed that both sides had agreed to settle maritime disputes over the South China Sea via dialogue.
Malaysia’s nearly US$ 100 billion worth of bilateral trade is expected to rise further with China’s agreement to buy more palm oil from Malaysia, allow imports of Malaysian birds nest and more flights for Malaysian Airlines and Air Asia. In return, Malaysia has agreed to grant a banking license for China Construction Bank to operate in the country.
Ties between Malaysia and the U.S. have taken a dip since the Department of Justice filed a civil suit to recover more than US$1 billion in assets said to be embezzled from state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB). Malaysian government has also been incensed by suspected U.S. funding for civil society groups to destabilise the Razak government.
Echoing the Philipines’ president’s sentiments, Malaysian deputy prime minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi told journalists at a regional security conference in Singapore on November 1 that his country wants to have good ties with both the United States and China, downplaying suggestions that Kuala Lumpur is leaning towards Beijing.
“I think it is very subjective for anyone to regard (it as a) warm or cold relationship,” he told reporters after attending the Asia-Europe Counter Terrorism Dialogue. “We would like to have a balanced and good relationship with both countries.”