Repairing fragile relations with China strained by the execution in March of three Filipino drug mules is certain to top President Benigno Aquino’s agenda when he arrives in Beijing late this month.
Both Mr. Aquino and Chinese President Hu Jintao have a vested interest in stabilizing relations between two countries whose peoples share common roots. Former president Corazon Aquino, Mr. Aquino’s mother and one of his predecessors, visited her ancestral home in 1988 in Fujian province’s Honjian village as a reminder of the Chinese origins of many of her people.
Mr. Aquino’s five-day visit offers both men an opportunity to calm rising tensions over competing claims to parts of the South China Sea isles. China disputes the claims of the Philippines as well as those of Malaysia, Vietnam, and Brunei.
Tensions have mounted following Vietnamese naval exercises in the disputed waters and a Philippine request from the United States for a guarantee that it would protect its former colony in case of a Chinese attack. The tensions have rendered the 2003 Declaration on Conduct in the South China Sea signed alongside a friendship treaty between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and China meaningless.
As in all things Asian, Mr. Aquino’s visit could well calm rattled nerves even if the execution of the Filipino drug mules sent a tough message. The three were executed despite Philippine Vice-President Jejomar Binay having secured a temporary stay during his visit to China in February.
Mr. Aquino’s visit is like a family member visiting third degree relatives. They are distant enough to be forgotten until problems arise, but close enough to demand respect and courtesy for the sake of family harmony. Filipinos see Mr. Hu’s invitation to Mr. Aquino as a recognition of their country as an emerging regional power. That will go a long way in easing tensions in the South China Sea.
The visit will most likely include sumptuous meals in Beijing’s grandiose banquet halls, the signing of numbers of agreements pledging stronger trade and commercial ties between the two countries; visits to China’s favorite tourist spots and perhaps an early morning trek up the Great Wall.
All of this to boost investment as well as trade that last year soared to $10.35 billion, a 54 percent rise compared to 2009, making China the Philippines’ third largest trading partner. Some 400 Filipino businessmen have asked to be allowed to accompany Mr. Aquino on his visit to China, eager to explore opportunities for China’s booming consumer market.
Investment too has been a two-way road with Filipino investors venturing onto the mainland. The Jollibee Group is opening food outlets in China’s major cities; mall magnate Henry Sy has built SM Malls in southwestern China and the Ayala Group of Companies is producing semi-conductors in China.
For their part, Chinese companies are omnipresent in the Philippines. Great Wall Motors last year opened an automotive manufacturing plant and the Philippine and Chinese transport ministers are expected to revive stalled negotiations on the Northern Railway project that will connect Manila to the northern provinces.
Increased cultural exchange bolsters trade and investment ties. Filipino students troop to Beijing to learn Mandarin. Filipino tourists flock to the Forbidden City, Summer Palace, and the Xian archaeological sites. The more adventurous ones look at riding the high-speed train from Chengdu to Tibet, or retracing Marco Polo’s journey along the Silk Road once China has finished rehabilitating it.
Chinese tourists are enamored by the Taal Lake, an underwater volcano located south of Manila. Daily direct flights from Xiamen to Cebu City in southern Philippines ferry hoards of Chinese tourists; tourists and businessmen fill seats on daily flights from Manila to Beijing, Shanghai and Xiamen operated by Philippine Air Lines and China Southern Airlines.
Mr. Aquino’s visit highlights China’s successful use of soft power to build relationships based on inducements and gestures of goodwill rather than aggression and interference in domestic affairs. China’s success is evident in turning Southeast Asia into a peaceful and prosperous backyard that allows it to concentrate on modernizing its economy.
The upbeat mood of the Philippine media towards President Aquino’s visit can’t be missed. The opportunity to solve conflicts and deepen business ties in typical Asian fashion through friendly conversation over a steaming cup of noodles and clicking chopsticks bodes well, both for Chinese soft power and Filipino entrepreneurship.
Teresita Cruz-del Rosario is Visiting Associate Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. She was formerly Assistant Minister during the transition government of President Corazon Aquino. She has a background in sociology and social anthropology and specializes in development, Chinese investments in Southeast Asia, migration, and social movements. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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