China’s ties with the Philippines are growing more challenging, despite high-level meetings and pledges to maintain good relations, as Manila seeks to strengthen its military cooperation with the US, Japan and Australia.
Manila last week agreed to a massive joint exercise with the US in its waters, including the South China Sea, and on Wednesday Australia said it was also planning patrols of the contentious waterway with the Philippines.
This was despite assurances from Manila to Beijing, in a phone call between deputy foreign minister Theresa Lazaro and foreign vice-minister Sun Weidong on February 17.
According to the Chinese foreign ministry, the two sides agreed to “jointly maintain China-Philippines relations and the overall peace and stability of the South China Sea”.
Observers say Beijing is concerned about recent developments in the Asia-Pacific region and the South China Sea – subject to competing claims by China and other countries, including the Philippines – but its hands are tied.
Ding Duo, deputy director at the National Institute for South China Seas Studies’ Research Centre for Ocean Law and Policy, said the Chinese government was concerned that countries in the Asia-Pacific region were using its dispute with Manila over the waterway as an excuse to interfere in regional matters.
“By turning the South China Sea issue into a Philippine national security issue and painting a narrative of Chinese threat, countries like Australia, the US or even Europe will have more reason to get involved,” Ding said.
“China is also concerned about Southeast Asian countries forming small alliances in its regional waters,” he said.
On his first state visit to Beijing in January after taking office, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jnr pledged to “shift the trajectory [in relations] to a higher gear” during his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
In addition to agreements focusing on greater economic cooperation, the leaders agreed to set up direct communication channels to handle tensions in the South China Sea.
The agreement was tested just weeks later, when the Philippines accused a Chinese vessel of trying to disrupt a resupply mission to troops stationed in the waterway with lasers. The US threw its support behind Manila.
According to Ding, the incident showed the new direct communication channels between Manila and Beijing are working. “During the phone call between the foreign ministers, both sides showed restraint and did not escalate the issue.”
Earlier this month, Manila agreed to give the US military access to four more bases in the Philippines, in addition to the five covered by a defence cooperation pact signed in 2014. Two are likely to be located in the north near Taiwan.
In the same period, the Philippines and Japan signed a humanitarian assistance and disaster relief agreement which could serve as a precursor to joint military exercises.
Collin Koh, a research fellow with the maritime security programme at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said China did not have many options other than to maintain the status quo with the Philippines.
“There is very little China can do to convince the Philippines to roll back on its agreements with the US, unless it changes its behaviour in the South China Sea, which isn’t going to happen,” Koh said.
“The Chinese cannot offer any comparative security arrangements with the Philippines because there is a lack of trust and resistance from the Philippine military.
“I fail to see how much China can do other than just sit and see what happens, instead of resorting to drastic measures that would worsen the situation.”
nternational relations professor Shi Yinhong at Renmin University of China said Marcos did not feel the need to compromise or roll back on cooperation with the US or Japan in a bid to avoid disputes with China or gain economic benefits.
Any significant or long-lasting improvement in China-Philippines relations was unlikely in the short-term, he said.
“On the Chinese side, there will be no change in its stance on the Taiwan issue and the South China Sea issue, nor will there be fundamental and lasting changes in the corresponding military and paramilitary behaviour,” Shi said.
“At the same time, China’s years of economic downturn and reduced fiscal capacity will make China’s actual aid and investment in the Philippines significantly smaller than it was some years ago.”
Although the windows of opportunity are narrowing, Beijing should focus on winning back Philippine favour – at its height during Rodrigo Duterte’s presidency – with more incentives to prove its sincerity in building stronger economic ties, Koh said.
“The Philippines now is different from during Duterte’s time. They learned lessons from the Duterte administration – that by working with China, they lost out on the South China Sea but were not gaining anything economically,” he said.
“Many initiatives did not materialise and the returns on Chinese investments seem to be low. For China, it is now harder to satisfy an increasingly picky customer.”