[ANALYSIS] Now’s the best time to rethink China policy

There is no better time than now to rethink the Philippine government’s China policy.

The June 9 ramming of a Philippine wooden fishing boat anchored near Reed Bank by what appeared to be a steel-hulled Chinese fishing vessel demonstrates a new and dangerous element in Beijing’s assertiveness in the disputed South China Sea. (WATCH: How alleged Chinese ship sank Filipino fishing vessel in West PH Sea)

China claims almost entirely the strategic waterway where about $3 billion sea-borne goods pass every year. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam also have conflicting claims on the South China Sea, believed to have rich deposits of oil and gas.

Since 2012, when China started building man-made islands in the Spratly chain of islands and barricaded Scarborough Shoal, Chinese coast guard vessels have been driving away local fishing boats from these contested areas through bull horns and water cannons.

They were seen as more lenient with Filipino fishermen probably due to Manila’s security alliance with Washington, which patrols the South China Sea. The U.S. Navy has done more than a dozen freedom of navigation operations (Fonops) in South China Sea this year.

China has been harsher and more violent towards Vietnam, firing at and sinking at times its neighbor’s fishing boats.

Thus, China’s recent action in the Reed Bank is alarming. (READ: Hold China accountable, says Del Rosario)

It showed no tolerance for any activity in an area that’s clearly part of the Philippines’ 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone – a Philippine claim that was upheld by an international arbitration tribunal in The Hague 3 years ago.

Indeed, the Asian giant is now becoming more aggressive in protecting its territorial claims and expanding its strategic perimeter defense to push out the United States from the region. (READ: Sinking of Filipino vessel a 'first' in PH-China row)

Lessons from Hanoi 

The Philippines should now learn something from Vietnam on how it handles political and economic relations with China. (Read Rappler's 2014 interview with the Vietnamese ambassador to Manila.)

Hanoi has maintained close economic relations with Beijing, as shown by huge Chinese capital flowing into Vietnam. But it continued to challenge China’s dominant presence in the South China Sea. It has recognized that China can play rough politics but good business. China, after all, adopts a capitalist market system but keeps conservative political principles with no room for debate.

To keep its people happy, China needs to sustain and grow its economy. Thus it is linking with the fastest growing economies in Southeast Asia and the rest of South Asia and Europe through its Belt and Road Initiative. Yet, it will not tolerate political dissent, as demonstrated by its violent quelling of the Tiananmen protests 3 decades ago as well as Hong Kong’s democratic movements.

It is now apparent that President Rodrigo Duterte’s policy towards China has not tempered the latter’s impulses. 

Yet, China needs the Philippines’ large market for its goods as well as raw materials, including Manila’s number one export product – semiconductors. China needs semiconductors to fuel its economic engine in the face of its escalating trade war with the United States.

Building defenses 

The Philippines should not be timid in resisting China’s bullying tactics at sea. It should continue building a modest defense capability so that no other country would try something without getting their nose bloody in a confrontation.

Also, the Philippines should take advantage of the sudden refocusing of the U.S. military towards the Chinese threat, as amplified by U.S. Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan at the annual Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore, and its decision to provide regional allies and partners enhance maritime domain capabilities, like sensors, drones and radars.

Why should the Philippines run away from a fight? As we've shown in our history, our fallen heroes fought with bolo at Pinaglabanan against the colonizers' superior arms during the war with Spain.

The Philippines should stand up for its rights, for its dignity and honor, and for its sovereignty. – Rappler.com 


A veteran defense reporter who won the Pulitzer in 2018 for Reuters' reporting on the Philippines' war on drugs, the author is a former Reuters journalist.