“It appears there is no way but up.”
Which way will Philippines-China relations go in the next six years?
If the recent hour-long telesummit between President Rodrigo Duterte and Chinese President Xi Jinping is any indication, it has nowhere to go but up.
Here’s the highlights of their conversation, based on news reports. On the South China Sea issue, the two leaders stressed the need to exert all efforts to maintain peace, security, and stability in the South China Sea by exercising restraint, dissipating tensions, and working on a mutually agreeable framework for functional cooperation.
Both leaders acknowledged that even while disputes existed, they remained committed to broaden the space for positive engagements, reflecting the dynamic and multidimensional relations between the two countries.
The two leaders described “the trajectory of relations as one that is positive and created greater space for partnership and cooperation” despite continued tensions in the West Philippine Sea caused by Chinese actions in disputed areas that prompted the Philippines to file hundreds of diplomatic protests against China, including one just over a week prior to the telesummit. In March, the Philippines filed a diplomatic protest over a Chinese Coast Guard vessel engaging in “close distance maneuvering” that heightened the risk of collision in the disputed waterway.
Duterte and Xi likewise emphasized the importance of continuing discussions and concluding the Code of Conduct on the South China Sea. China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) signed a non-binding Declaration on Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea in 2002, but the binding Code of Conduct on the South China Sea has yet to be finalized 20 years later.
Reviewing bilateral ties since 2016, the two leaders noted the significant growth of their economic cooperation, with Beijing helping in infrastructure development by supporting projects under the Build, Build, Build program. They also agreed to further enhance two-way trade and investments, and stressed the need to open up access to goods and services and work towards a balance of trade that would reflect a healthy economic partnership.
The two leaders agreed on the importance of mutual support in each other’s pandemic response. The Philippines has purchased most of its COVID-19 vaccines from the China-owned Sinovac’s CoronaVac. The Department of Health recently said that it would donate excess vaccine doses to Myanmar and Papua New Guinea.
The two leaders hailed the elevation of Philippines-China bilateral relations into a Comprehensive Strategic Cooperation as a milestone achievement that demonstrated the commitment of the two countries to continue building on the gains of the previous years towards the future.
During their telesummit, the two leaders also discussed the war in Ukraine and expressed hopes for the peaceful resolution of the situation through dialogue in accordance with international law.
The two leaders also discussed climate change. They agreed on the need for both the Philippines and China to work closely together to address the impacts of climate change and to ensure that the voice of the developing world will be heard in all relevant climate change forums.
Bilateral relations have proceeded along two tracks. One track seeks to settle the territorial dispute in the South China Sea through diplomacy and negotiations. The two countries established the Bilateral Consultative Mechanism (BCMs) to deal with South China Sea issues. This mechanism has met seven (7) times, if we’re not mistaken, since 2017. But beyond official communiqués of their meetings, the two sides have not divulged the details of issues discussed, and what steps have been taken to resolve contentious issues. Our Department of Foreign Affairs should tell us what issues have been threshed out and what else needs to be addressed.
The other track is to strengthen economic cooperation, trade and investments and people-to-people and cultural exchanges. This track has proven more successful and produced more concrete results than the first one.
At this point, we must emphasize the important role played by the late Ambassador Jose Santiago “Chito” Sta. Romana in strengthening bilateral ties since 2016. In his five-and-a-half years as our envoy in Beijing until his untimely passing on April 18, Sta. Romana helped immensely in laying the foundation for robust ties and mutual understanding between our two countries in the years ahead.
It was during Ambassador Sta. Romana’s stint in Beijing that the two countries elevated the status of bilateral relations to Comprehensive Strategic Cooperation. This we think is a testament to his diplomatic skills and deep understanding of Chinese history, politics and culture. that quite possibly allowed him to uphold our long-term national interests amid China’s insistence on ownership of much of the South China Sea on the basis of its controversial nine-dash line.