A close-up look at ASEAN's discontent with external countries' manipulation of S.China Sea issue



Editor's Note:


The recent provocations made by the US, Japan, and the Philippines against China in the South China Sea reached a climax this week. The first "maritime cooperation activity" jointly performed with Australia and the first trilateral US-Japan-Philippines leaders' summit are widely seen as attempts to exert coercive pressure on China with the intent to ignite a powder keg of conflict in the South China Sea. 


How do the people of the Philippines view their government's reliance on the US to stir up troubles in South China Sea? What will the Philippines' unilateral and dangerous moves bring to other ASEAN member states? With these questions, Global Times reporters went to the Philippines to speak with former senior officials, think tanks, and ordinary citizens. 


"The Philippines should not adopt a one-sided foreign policy," "We fear the current government will lead the Philippines down a more dangerous path," and "Over-reliance on the US does not align with the ASEAN's principles of independence and neutrality" were the most common responses that reporters received during the visit. 


The US Embassy in the Philippines is located in a coastal area in Manila, which boasts the most beautiful beaches and waterfront promenades. A local tour guide told the Global Times that the US Embassy in the Philippines is one of the largest embassies among US missions abroad. It is closely connected to the Philippine Navy located in South Harbor in Manila and the Philippine Coast Guard Headquarters. 


"The proximity means if there is any emergency, Americans can quickly escape under the protection of the Philippine military," said the guide. 


Under the current Philippine government, the US' influence, which was once thought to be drifting away from the Philippines, is quickly coming back. Some Philippine analysts believe that the current Philippine government is creating friction in the South China Sea with the aim of boosting the presence of the US military in the Philippines. They believe that only by creating panic among the people can the US' military return to the Philippines "naturally." 


However, the rapid transition from peace to turmoil in the Philippines has aroused strong dissatisfaction among Philippine politicians.


'We oppose increasing US military presence'


Former president Rodrigo Duterte has expressed concerns about US military presence in the Philippines on multiple occasions, believing that it will put the country in a dangerous position. He has stated that it would be pretty naive of or stupid for Filipinos to think that the Americans would only bring conventional warheads. But unfortunately, the Philippines granted the US wider access to military bases amid tensions with China in February.


The two countries not only plan to return the presence to Subic Bay Naval Base and Clark Air Force Base, but also push an expansion reaching nine bases in total.


Ira Pozon, a Philippine lawyer, also the Legal Counsel to the former Philippine vice president, told the Global Times that the US' influence in the Philippines is deeply rooted, from the education system to the political system, with the Philippine parliament's bicameral system being modeled after that of the US. The names of many streets in the Philippines show the influence of the US and most Filipinos' understanding of China also comes from Western reports and narratives. 


Pozon candidly said that the influence of the US on the Philippines has been strong since its founding. However, Filipinos have no intention of becoming enemies with China. On the contrary, they hope to become good, mutually understanding neighbors.


Rommel C. Banlaoi, the Chairman of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence, and Terrorism Research, told the Global Times that he believes it is one of the US' pieces of advice to the current Philippine government to pursue such kinds of confrontational action, especially in the context of what they call the "offensive transparency strategy" in the South China Sea. 


"They have a way to give such kind of support to the Philippines. For example, as a result of President Marcos' decision to be closer with the US, the US decided to provide more military assistance funding to the Philippines, and the Philippine military can use this funding to train anybody to protect our interests in the South China Sea," he said.


Rommel C. Banlaoi is a renowned analyst on the South China Sea row, and was assigned to help advise the president on security matters in 2022. His experience has seen the Philippine government shift from neutrality to a clear bias toward the US. 


"There are people opposing those decisions of increasing US military presence in the Philippines and I am one of them. The US wants to have a greater role in the area.


We don't want to take sides with the US or China, but to take the side of our interests. Because of the decision of the current president to be closer to the US, we are becoming isolated from the ASEAN. Many ASEAN member states do not like what we are doing because it is running counter to the principle of the ASEAN of promoting the region as a zone of peace, freedom, and neutrality. The Philippines is no longer neutral because the Philippines has decided to become part of US strategy in the Pacific," said Banlaoi.


"The Philippines cannot be a truly proud, independent nation if we continue to rely on the US," Banlaoi stressed. "Our current government is heavily reliant on the US to advance our position in the South China Sea and that kind of reliance is truly hurting Philippines-China relations and is making it difficult to settle our disputes in the South China Sea."


Similar concerns are shared among current senior government officials as well.


On March 25, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. signed Executive Order No. 57. It's reported that the Executive Order was signed two days after the water cannon warning by the China Coast Guard against Philippine vessels near Renai Jiao, section 7 of which authorizes the National Maritime Center to "accept donations, contributions, grants, bequests, or gifts from domestic or foreign sources."


Philippine Senator Imee Marcos warned her brother, President Marcos Jr, against the Executive Order, which she said would welcome a "Trojan horse of foreign interference." "Emotion rather than reason has prevailed in our maritime conflict with China and is leading us down a dangerous path that will cost us more than just Filipino pride," she said in a statement on April 1, the Daily Tribune reported. 


Imee Marcos reiterated that putting the lives of Filipinos in danger is a "gross irresponsibility and must be avoided at all costs." She also advocated for a proper dialogue with China. 


Former Philippine president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo also said during the Boao Forum for Asia 2024 on March 27 that the Philippine government and people do not want war, and China is very important to Philippines.


'Confronting with China would be very bad for us'


During the visit, Global Times reporters noticed that symbols of China-Philippines friendship are still visible everywhere in Manila.


When asked about the must-visit places for Chinese tourists in Manila, locals recommended the St. Augustine Church, the oldest Catholic church in Manila. On either side of the church's entrance are several Chinese-style stone lions, clear proof that Chinese workers participated in the construction of the church. They are considered by many Filipinos to be symbols of China-Philippines friendship.


In addition, the "China-Philippines Friendship Gate" archway at the entrance of Manila Chinatown with distinct Chinese characteristics and the Manila Bridge built by China for the Philippines still hold a place in the hearts of locals.


However, Global Times reporters could also clearly feel that under the guidance of the current Philippine government, the Philippine media establishment has dissolved the friendly atmosphere between China and the Philippines. This has increased public sentiment for the two sides to engage in dialogue, rather than introducing risks from external sources.


Philippine college student Yuan Ross Rama told the Global Times that he feels the growing confrontation between the two governments and hopes that the two governments will peacefully resolve the dispute through dialogue. Ordinary people do not want to take sides between the two major powers, as ultimately it is the interests of the people and fishermen that will be harmed.Local tourism industry practitioners are also worried about the deterioration of China-Philippines relations. A local tour guide named Ryan told the Global Times that "the deterioration of bilateral relations has had a direct impact on me. In the first three months of this year, I received fewer Chinese tour groups than in a typical month."


He said that if there were no Chinese people doing business in the Philippines, the Philippine economy would incur huge losses. "Chinese people are very good at trade, which is exactly the ability that the Filipino people lack." 


According to Ryan, during former president Duterte's tenure, there were relatively fewer people begging on the streets of Manila or making a living by wiping cars in the dense traffic. But now these people can be seen frequently. "I can't say that the wealth gap in the Philippines was much wider now, but at least at that time the government would set up some relief agencies to help them. Now, the Philippine government chooses to confront rather than cooperate with China, which is very bad for us."


'Manila's role as US pawn receives no regional support'


The Philippine government's unilateral actions have not just sparked concern among its own people. Scholars from many ASEAN countries have also told the Global Times that they are worried that their own countries will be forced to take sides, or that current tensions will affect their bilateral cooperation with China.


"We are concerned that the worsening China-Philippines relations will have a negative impact on the projects under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in Malaysia and the cooperation mechanism proposed by China in Southeast Asia," Ong Tee Keat, former Malaysian minister of transport, told the Global Times.


Any military posture and provocative remarks made by any party under the instigation of external forces should not be allowed to undermine the overall mutually beneficial partnership between China and the ASEAN, said Ong Tee Keat.


There's no necessity for the ASEAN to appoint a spokesperson that represents an external power, including the US, Dato' Abdul Majit bin Ahmad Khan, president of the Malaysia-China Friendship Association, and also former Malaysian ambassador to China, told the Global Times in a recent interview.


"There has always been the intention of the ASEAN, China, and also other countries to ensure that the South China Sea remains a region of peace and stability. It's in our interest that things should not get toxic, because then it will affect our development efforts and the harmonious relationship that we have built over the past years. I believe all ASEAN member countries and China want to see peace in the region so that we can pursue development for our people," said Majit. 


Malaysia's Prime Minister, on March 4, spoke up in defense of ties with China and rebuffed alleged pressure by the US and its allies on regional nations to take sides in the West's strategic rivalries with Beijing, the South China Morning Post reported. Anwar Ibrahim also said the risk of conflict in the South China Sea had been exaggerated.


Peng Nian, director of the Hong Kong Research Center for Asian Studies (RCAS), told the Global Times that except for the Philippines, other ASEAN countries are unwilling to "take sides" in this geopolitical competition. He said that what worries ASEAN countries is that the maritime dispute between China and the Philippines may escalate into a local military confrontation, threatening the peace and prosperity of the region. 


Peng noted that countries like Vietnam have not followed the Philippines in provoking the South China Sea issue in the last two years. Obviously, the Philippines is acting as a "pawn" for the US, but not receiving support from regional countries.


In a recent survey in Southeast Asia - the State of Southeast Asia 2024 Survey Report - China became the respondents' "top choice" for an alliance if the ASEAN were forced to align with one of its strategic rivals (such as the US or China) for the first time since 2020.


The majority of respondents believe that Southeast Asian countries' relationship with China is improving, while confidence in the US as a strategic partner and provider of regional security has declined significantly. 


A recent wave of visits by state leader and senior foreign affair officials to China has been witnessed among ASEAN member states, which is believed to be a true reflection of China-ASEAN relations growing closer, as well as a vivid practice of regional countries yearning for peace and seeking development.


"If you look at the trend in the region, all ASEAN countries except the Philippines are seeking balanced relations between these two great powers, but the Philippines is becoming more and more pro-American. The interests of the Philippines are the interests of the Filipino people, and the interests of the Filipino people are tied in with the interests of the ASEAN," said Banlaoi.

Global Times