During the auspicious state visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to the Philippines last November 2018, the two countries elevated their relations to a Comprehensive Strategic Cooperation (CSC). Given the political context defined by the U.S.-China geopolitical rivalry, the status of the Philippines as a U.S. ally, and the dispute in the West Philippine Sea which resulted to the legally successful Philippine arbitration case against China, the relevance of the CSC trascends China-Philippines relations. Truly, it is of regional significance as it supports China’s peaceful development narrative and reveals how Beijing can attract countries in the Asia Pacific, manage the South China Sea (SCS) disputes to its favor, and influence the security policies of U.S. allies and partners.
As the name suggests, the CSC between China and the Philippines encompasses more than two dozen agreements for cooperation in various fields including trade, infrastructure, energy, law enforcement, and maritime security, among others. However, the CSC presents underlying features that make it relevant to the evolving regional security environment. As can be gathered from the Joint Statement and Joint Press Statement of Beijing and Manila during President Xi’s state visit, the CSC holds the following characteristics: 1) it recognizes an increasingly multipolar world within which China and the Philippines are partners in development; 2) it promotes win-win economic cooperation that complements China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI); 3) it facilitates functional cooperation in addressing internal security issues affecting the Philippines such as counter-terrorism and Marawi Rehabilitation; and 4) it underscores the importance of bilateral consultation and negotiation mechanisms (e.g., Bilateral Consultation Mechanism on the SCS and Joint Coast Guard Committee on Maritime Cooperation) in managing the territorial and maritime dispute between Beijing and Manila.
These characteristics resonate with China’s peaceful development narrative which Beijing espouses as it shrewdly reshapes the regional security architecture of the Asia Pacific. Based on a white paper released by Beijing’s State Council Information Office last January 2017, China’s “Peaceful Development” narrative suggests a commitment to “upholding world peace and promoting common development and prosperity for all countries.” According to the white paper, China commits to several lines of effort which include the development of a harmonious Chinese society, implementation of an opening up strategy of mutual benefit, and creation of a peaceful international environment and favorable external conditions, among others.
More than these highly ideal lines of effort, however, a closer reading of the said white paper would reveal the underlying purposes of China’s peaceful development narrative. First, it seeks to dismiss the idea that China is or can become a threat to the security of the Asia Pacific region. The narrative underscores that China “never engages in aggression or expansion, never seeks hegemony, and remains a staunch force for upholding regional and world peace and stability.” Second, it suggests that the U.S.-led system of alliances and security partnerships, one of the cornerstones of the existing regional architecture, is irrelevant and incompatible with 21st century security challenges. The narrative offers a new kind of security thinking, one that is built on “mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality and coordination” and pursues “comprehensive security, common security and cooperative security.” As a veiled reference to the U.S.-led system, it also argues that countries “should abandon the Cold War mentality and confrontation between different alliances.” Third, it seeks to present China as a constructive party to the SCS disputes. The narrative underscores that “China has made a constructive proposal to ‘shelve disputes and seek joint development’ and done its utmost to uphold peace and stability in the South China Sea, East China Sea and the surrounding areas.” Finally, it heralds an age of multipolarity and global economic interdependence. In contrast to the notion of a unipolar world order under U.S. leadership, it argues that “the global trend towards multipolarity is irresistible” and that the “international community should reject the zero-sum game which was a product of the old international relations.”
Clearly, the CSC between China and the Philippines complements and supports the objectives of China’s peaceful development narrative. It represents the shared views of Beijing and Manila on the future of the Asia Pacific regional security environment. Likewise, it presents how China effectively uses a combination of economic statecraft and charm offensive to underpin its regional politico-economic influence and reveals how Beijing is able to skillfully shelve the SCS disputes through the promise of joint development. More importantly, from a strategic point of view, it reveals how China can influence the security thinking of a U.S. ally through its peaceful development narrative, thereby influencing its policy towards a crucial regional security issue such as the SCS disputes.
*Christian Vicedo is an independent defense and security analyst based in Manila. His writings have appeared in the Pacific Forum, East Asia Forum, The Diplomat, and Eurasia Review.