Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The China Challenge in Philippine Foreign and Security Policy

By Rommel C. Banlaoi 

            There is no doubt that China is the fastest growing major power in the Asia Pacific.  Thus, the Philippine government also comprehensively engages China while maintaining its alliance with the US.[1]   Though the aftermath of 9/11 saw the rejuvenation of Philippine-American security relations, the period also provided opportunities for China and the Philippines to sustain their friendship and enhance their cooperation.  The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) even contends that “It is strategically fundamental for the Philippines to develop a healthy, far-reaching and comprehensive relationship with China”.[2]  The Policy Paper on China made by the DFA in the aftermath of 9/11 also recommended to “engage China and enhance relations in all aspects.”[3] Scholars of international relations call this a “hedging” strategy.[4]  But the Philippines does not have yet a coherent hedging strategy towards China.  It has also been observed that “the Philippine policy elite’s views on China remain inconsistent, and its policy response ad hoc.  There is no agreement on the implications of China’s growing regional influence or, apparently, serious thought on how the Philippines might hedge instead of balance against Chinese economic and military power in the future.”[5]

In the Eight Foreign Policy Realities of the Philippine government enunciated by then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and currently being reviewed by Prsident Benigno Simeon Aquino III, China is identified as an influential power that can shape the Asian security landscape.  China, in fact, looms very large in the Asian strategic debate.  China, therefore, also occupies a very significant space in the post-9/11 foreign and security policy agenda of the Philippine government.

There are four factors why China matters significantly in Philippine foreign and security policy:  1) Historical legacy; 2) Geographic proximity; 3) Cultural familiarity;   4) Economic activity;   and 4) Political expediency.

Historical legacy.  Prior to becoming a member of the state now known as the Philippines, several islands of the archipelago already established relations with China.  As early as 972 AD, the first emperor of the Sung Dynasty set-up a maritime trade office in the Philippine island of Mindoro (rendered in Chinese as Ma-i).[6]    In 1001, the pre-colonial island of Butuan (rendered in Chinese as P’u-tuan) had a commercial contact with the Sung Dynasty.[7]  In the 16th century, the Sultan of Sulu visited China to pay tribute to Chinese monarch.  During the Spanish period, some Chinese businessmen migrated to the Philippines where they married some locals.  As a result of mixed marriages, ethnic Chinese played an integral part in the development of Philippine nationalism.  Filipino-Chinese leaders fought against the Spaniard during the revolutionary period and against the Japanese colonial forces during the Second World War.[8]  This shared historical experience makes China and the Philippines familiar with each other.
            Geographic proximity.   The total distance between the Philippines and China is only 1,850 miles or 2,978 kilometers separated only by a strip of water called the South China Sea.  Thus, they are close and not distant neighbors, much closer than the distance between the Philippines and the US, which is separated by a vast Pacific Ocean.   The close distance between the two countries facilitated trade relations during the pre-colonial times.   Strategically, China regards the Philippines as significant because of its geographic proximity to southern China, particularly Hong Kong-Macau and Taiwan, and vice versa. 
            Cultural familiarity.  Common historical legacy and geographic proximity also facilitated cultural familiarity between the Philippines and China.  With the presence of around 1.2 million Filipino-Chinese community,[9] which is one of the largest ethnic Filipino groups in the country, the Philippines becomes very familiar with Chinese culture and tradition.  This alone provides the two countries some levels of comforts with each other necessary for diplomatic relations.
            Economic activity.  Economic considerations also lure the Philippines to constructively relate with China.  Since its economic opening in 1979, China has been enjoying an average economic growth rate of 9 percent.   This economic boom has prompted my analysts to argue that by 2020, it will be the second largest economy in the world, next to US, and may even surpass the economic status of the US by 2050.   Thus, the Philippine pursues a foreign and security policy to comprehensively engage China in order to take advantage of its economic prosperity.  There is a view in the Philippines that the economic rise of China may spillover to the Philippines through bilateral trade and investments. After 9/11, their two-way trade has expanded by ten fold from $3.14 billion in 2000.  According to Chinese Embassy in Manila, the 2007 trade volume surpassed the $30 billion goal for 2010 that was set in 2005 when Chinese President Hu Jintao visited the Philippines.[10]   However, Philippines-China bilateral trade is still small compared to the trade volume with other countries in Southeast Asia.[11] 

            Political expediency.  Post-9/11 Philippine foreign and security policy towards China is dictated by political expediency.  The Philippines exerts conscious efforts to be in good political terms with China not only because it is a rapidly growing power but also because of the consideration that is more risky and costly to the Philippines not to be in good terms with China. Being in good terms with China can also increase the prospects of better commercial ties and more development assistance.  It can also increase Philippine efforts to leverage with the US and to manage its existing maritime territorial disputes with China.

[1]For an excellent analysis of Philippine efforts to comprehensively engage China before 9/11, see Aileen S.P. Baviera, Strategic Issues in Philippines-China Relations: Comprehensive Engagement (Manila:  Philippine-China Development Resource  Center, 2000).
[2]Department of Foreign Affairs, Philippines-China Agreements, 1975-2005:  Bridges Towards the Golden Age of Partnership (Beijing:  Philippine Embassy, 2005).
[3]Department of Foreign Affairs, Policy Paper on China (Pasay City:  DFA Office of Policy Planning and Coordination, October 2001).
[4]See Evan S. Medeiros, “Strategic Hedging and the Future of Asia Pacific Stability”, The Washington Quarterly, vol. 29, no. 1 (Winter 2005-2006), pp. 145-167 snf   John J. Tkacik, Jr., “Hedging Against China”, Heritage Foundation Backgrounder, no. 1925 (17 April 2006).  
[5]Bronson Percival, The Dragon Looks South: China and Southeast Asia in the New Century (Westport: Praeger Publishers, 2007), p. 69.  
[6]Mindoro is located at southwest of Luzon, and northeast of Palawan. In past times, it has been called Ma-i or Mait by ancient Chinese traders and, by Spaniards, as Mina de Oro (meaning "gold mine") from where the island got its current name.
[7]Butuan is located the Northeastern part of Agusan Valley sprawling accross the Agusan River.
[8]See Rommel C. Banlaoi, “Philippines-China Defense Relations in the Age of Terrorism:  Implications for Philippine National Security” in Security Aspects of Philippines-China Relations:  Bilateral Issues and Concerns in the Age of Global Terrorism (Quezon City:  Rex Book Store International, 2007), p.
[9]This figure however does not include the Chinese mestizos who since Spanish times have formed the middle class in Philippine society nor does it include Chinese immigrants from the People's Republic of China since 1949. See “Chinese Filipino” at 
[10]Trade between Philippines, Chinese mainland hits record high”, China Daily (January 28, 2008) at  
[11]Aileen Baviera, “The Political Economy of China’s Relations with Southeast Asia” in Ellen Palanca, ed., China’s Economic Growth and the ASEAN (Quezon City:  Philippine APEC Study Center Network, 2001), p. 249.  

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