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President Duterte’s South China Sea agreements represent the new model for cooperation in South East Asia

China has hailed an agreement with Philippines over the South China Sea as a landmark measure for peace and prosperity in South East Asia.

Following a recent summit of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), China and Philippines have signed a decisive agreement wherein violence and confrontation are rejected as a means of settling lingering disputes over maritime and territorial rights in the South China Sea.

The result of the agreement means the establishment of fully peaceful cooperative relations between Philippines and the economic superpower of the 21st century, China. Under Duterte, Philippines has also developed historically strong ties with Russia. Both Russia and China now look to invest in new major projects in Philippines which in the coming years will fully modernise the infrastructure of the country.

The South China Sea disputes, far more than the nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula, was always going to be the US path towards sowing discord and conflict in Asia. Whereas in respect of Korea, the US has little choice but to ultimately cooperate with China in what amounts to a protracted diplomatic tug-of-war, in the South China Sea, the US constantly provokes China by sailing through waters claimed by China. This almost always elicits a firm response from China which almost always includes the scrambling of Chinese ships and aircraft, along a strongly worded statement.

While the US does not have any territory bordering the South China Sea, Washington has taken it upon itself to “defend” the claims of South East Asian states over parts of the sea, including some of the Sea’s islands.

As Washington’s post-colonial ally in South East Asia, Philippines had traditionally been the testing ground for America’s own policy against China in respect of the South China Sea. This era has now come to an end as under President Duterte, Philippines asserts an independent foreign policy.

As part of his drive to expand the independent international relations of Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte has reached out to many new partners, including and especially China. China has received Duterte’s sincere wishes for cooperation, peace and long-term economic partnerships with marked enthusiasm.

Because of this, Philippines has pioneered the new model of South East Asian–Chinese cooperation, which will serve as the template for a new era among all countries who seek to create peace and mutual prosperity in the region.

After earlier meetings at the APEC summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping, President Duterte has met with the powerful Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to solidify and expand upon earlier agreements.

According to a joint statement detailing the nature and accomplishments of the meeting,

“Both sides believe that the maritime dispute is not the full sum of the China-Philippines relationship. Both sides also reaffirm the importance of maintaining and promoting regional peace and stability, freedom of navigation in and over-flight above the South China Sea as well as freedom of commerce and other peaceful uses”.

Both sides also agreed “to manage and prevent incidents at sea, enhance maritime dialogue and cooperation, and pursue a stable growth of bilateral relations. Both sides agree to strengthen maritime cooperation in areas such as marine environmental protection, disaster risk reduction, including possible cooperation in marine scientific research, subject to further consultations”.

Chinese media has responded in an overwhelmingly positive way to the agreements struck between Duterte and his Chinese counterparts. The influential Global Times, the international media outlet of the Communist Party of China, has described the depth and breadth of new Sino-Philippine ties in the following way,

“The Sino-Philippine relationship has entered a new stage of mutual benefit, with fruitful results achieved in pragmatic cooperation in multiple fields.

After a meeting in Manila on Wednesday, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte witnessed the signing of 14 cooperation agreements on infrastructure financing, bridge construction, bond issues, drug rehabilitation, climate change, intellectual property protection and industrial capacity cooperation, according to the Xinhua News Agency.

The two leaders also announced the start of work for two river bridges in Manila, which are expected to ease the capital’s severe traffic jams.

Even before the signing ceremony, the Philippine Department of Finance  said earlier this week that China had promised about $7.34 billion in loans and grants to the Philippines for infrastructure projects and other programs, The Philippine Star reported.

These developments highlight the warming ties between the two countries, which is conducive to the fundamental interests of both countries and their people. China has become the largest trade partner of the Philippines: it is the country’s largest importer and the fourth-largest export destination.

As Southeast Asian countries recovered from the global financial crisis and returned to rapid development in recent years, the Philippine economy also recorded fast growth. The country’s GDP grew faster than expected (6.9 percent during the third quarter), the ninth consecutive quarter of growth above 6 percent.

Given the country’s grand infrastructure plan and a series of reforms, the Duterte administration aims to reach annual growth rates of 7 percent to 8 percent over the next six years, according to media reports.

The Philippines needs to improve and expand its infrastructure to provide essential support for rapid economic development. That’s the exact area where China can be of much help, indicating great economic complementarities in terms of cooperation in such fields as transportation, telecommunications and agriculture.

Moreover, from the perspective of national strategy, the Philippines’ “Build, Build, Build” infrastructure development initiative is also highly compatible with the China-proposed Belt and Road (B&R) initiative. It can be expected that projects under both initiatives can develop faster and thus improve the Philippines’ infrastructure and living standards substantially.

As for China, the enhanced relationship with the Philippines allows it to better carry out international production capacity cooperation and push forward with the B&R initiative.

As the Philippine economy grows, it will also be a big potential market for China”.

Likewise, the official media outlet of the People’s Republic of China, Xinhua has reported,

“Since Sino-Philippine relations were turned around last year, the bilateral ties have seen a positive momentum of improvement and development and bilateral cooperation has been promoted in all sectors, said Li.

Li said his visit is aimed to consolidate the momentum for the bilateral ties and make up the time and opportunities that were once lost”.

The language used by the highly professionalised Chinese press helps to shed light on Chinese perceptions of the agreements made between Duterte, Xi and Li. China has essentially stated that Philippines is now China’s most important partner in ASEAN and this is the case precisely because Duterte has come to China with an attitude that indicates Philippines’ willingness to see international relations through the “win-win” paradigm about which President Xi Jinping speaks so frequently.

The “win-win” model that Duterte has adopted can be contrasted with the “us versus them” model the US engages in. This model has caused particular consternation in the South China Sea. While Vietnam made some far less specific statements via-a-vis Philippines in relation to settling its disputes with China over the South China Sea, Vietnam continues to hedge its bets, making deals with the US that many in China believe are subtle provocations.

By contrast, Philippines is able to deal on a pragmatic level with the United States, largely due to the fact that President Duterte and President Trump share a good personal relationship, in spite of strains between the Duterte administration and the US Congress, which often sounds like a mouthpiece of the Liberal Party of Philippines. The key to this approach is one of balance and realism. The United States is looking to sell in South East Asia, but China is looking to invest. Duterte realises this which is why he called his meetings with China and Russia the most “meaningful” during the APEC conference and subsequent ASEAN forum.

Philippines has now reaped the best of Chinese investment by showing a genuine willingness to cooperate in an area of vital importance with China. Rather than be the linchpin of a new China-US conflict, Philippines under Duterte has decided to prioritise its own material interests. Duterte has put Philippines first and now one of the top ten growing economies in the world is working with the world’s economic engine.

This is President Duterte’s most resounding vindication and triumph to-date.

Philippines masters the art of “win-win” at APEC summit in a geo-economic triumph for Duterte

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