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Commentary: To reclaim Philippines from Beijing’s grasp, US must look beyond the South China Sea

20 Mar Commentary: To reclaim Philippines from Beijing’s grasp, US must look beyond the South China Sea

By Simon Tay
For South China Morning Post

International talk about the Philippines often focuses on the South China Sea and disputes that the country has with China. Speculation then follows about the character of, and sometimes controversial quotations from, President Rodrigo Duterte. Less notice is given to the country’s economy that continues to grow, although not without hiccups, at one of the fastest rates in the region.

The three issues however interplay and have a significance that extends beyond the archipelago of islands. The recent visit to Manila by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo brings this into focus.

Secretary Pompeo reassured the Philippines about the scope of the Mutual Defence treaty between the two countries, clarifying that any attack on Philippine aircraft or ships in the South China Sea would trigger a response from the United States. Such comments seek to provide reassurance when China is building military outposts in the sea.

In contrast to more ambiguous interpretations given by past US administrations, the statement was unusually clear. Yet so were the responses from his Filipino hosts.

Pompeo’s counterpart, Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin, preferred the view that, “In vagueness lies the best deterrence”. Philippine Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana responded that he was less worried about the lack of US assurance and worried more that the treaty might lead to a war that, “we [the Philippines] do not seek and do not want”.

Much is being made by the Manila media of the differences between the two Filipino views. Yet they are aligned when we compare them to the recent past, when the then Aquino administration had actively sought more and clearer support from America. Today, Manila is not welcoming American commitment on the South China Sea and is instead wary about being pulled into conflict.

Much of this shift is due to policies under the Duterte presidency. While the preceding administration actively pursued the South China Sea arbitration proceedings against China, Duterte has been keener to negotiate.

Personalities matter too. While both are outsize characters, Presidents Donald Trump and Duterte have not developed a good working relationship. The Americans have criticised Duterte on a number of issues, especially concerning the human rights concerns that arise from his war against drug dealers and claims of extrajudicial killings. Pompeo on this visit echoed the issues. On one hand, he tried to liken Duterte to Trump but Pompeo also echoed American concerns about human rights violations.

There is also an outstanding invitation for the Filipino president to visit the White House, which Pompeo reiterated during his visit. But this has not been taken up. American investment in the Philippines too has

The overall stock of US investment in its former colony remains considerable but new investments have slowed. The Trump administration’s move to raise import duties has been one reason for this slow down, and has been blamed for the nine-year high inflation rate that the Philippines experienced late last year.

In contrast, China’s investments and commercial interests are ramping up. The Duterte administration is emphasising a “Build, Build, Build” infrastructure programme, with an immense US$120 billion price tag. China has pledged a substantial US$24 billion investment deal and, while things are moving slower than some anticipated, there are two China-funded bridges crossing the Pasig River in Manila that are already examples of what can be delivered.

China’s investments are also growing in other sectors, especially in real-estate and gaming and gambling. These changes have a clear presence in the new reclamation project along Manila Bay, just beyond the airport. While anchored by some of the country’s large conglomerates, you feel China’s presence viscerally in the development of massive and gaudy casinos, malls and hotels.

Prices here have soared for office properties and condominiums, ahead of other areas of the city.

While some Filipinos welcome this and benefit, others are squeezed out and bemoan the development. The fear is not only that Chinese workers are taking jobs, but that some are evading taxes and committing crimes. Environmental and social concerns over the massive land reclamation on the bay add to the chorus of concern.

Yes, islands and other rocks in the South China Sea remain in contention and the US navy continues to make “freedom of navigation” patrols within areas claimed by Chinese authorities. But China has not only poured much money and sand into reclaiming the sea. The new activity and controversy are now not at sea, but onshore, and often within Manila the capital. If the US is to reclaim influence in these new dynamics, the Trump administration must do much more than talking up an old defence treaty and inviting Duterte to visit.

Simon Tay is an associate professor of international law at the National University of Singapore, and chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs. This commentary was first published in the South China Morning Post on 20 March 2019.