Time for China and the Philippines to Talk: Resolving the South China Sea Conundrum

06/18/2015 05:02 am ET | Updated Jun 18, 2016


Among American foreign policy hawks, President Ronald Reagan has been continuously portrayed as the tough, principled leader, who stood up to an "evil empire" (Soviet Union) and facilitated its demise by employing a combination of uncompromising diplomacy and rapid military buildup. One of Regan's most memorable moments was his exhortation, "Mr. Gorbachev tear down this wall" during his 1987 speech in Berlin.

Reagan's predecessor, the highly charismatic John F. Kennedy, confronted an even more aggressive Moscow during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, which almost sparked an apocalyptic nuclear showdown between the two superpowers (see Graham Allison's classic book, Essence of Decision). Ominously, Kennedy didn't have a very amicable counterpart in Moscow, Nikita Khrushchev, who didn't hesitate to threaten his American counterparts: "We will bury you!" Kennedy decided to impose a naval blockade to prevent the deployment of Soviet nuclear arsenals to neighboring Cuba.

Thus was born the myth that the best way to deal with your adversaries is through brinkmanship and confrontation.

Both Kennedy and Reagan, however, were able to avert a nuclear Armageddon with an aggressive adversary by employing smart diplomacy. In the case of Kennedy, the rollback of Soviet nuclear missiles deployment to Cuba came in return for American concession on Jupiter missile deployment to Turkey. As for Reagan, he actually employed considerable strategic restraint and skillfully oversaw a détente with Moscow, which paved the way for relatively cordial ties with reformist leader Mikhail Gorbachev as well as the signing of critical arms-control agreements such as the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.

Obviously, there are considerable differences between the fierce and relatively zero-sum nature of Cold War rivalries, on one hand, and today's complex relations between China and its aggrieved neighbors, particularly the Philippines, on the other. In fact, as I have argued earlier, China is no Soviet Union, for it represents both a force of economic integration as well as geopolitical polarization in Asia. But the lessons of high-stakes diplomacy during Cold War are pretty straightforward.

Even the bitterest adversaries can and should talk, and the measure of good leadership is to combine deterrence with smart engagement. After all, diplomacy is about avoiding conflict, resolving disputes, and outsmarting your adversaries through peaceful dialogue rather than raw brinkmanship. There is a reason why the great Italian thinker Niccolo Machiavelli once said: "Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer."

Learning from neighbors

The Philippines isn't the only country that has been on the receiving end of China's territorial expansionism. If anything, Tokyo and Hanoi have been locked in a similar, if not fiercer, territorial showdown with Beijing.

Since 2010, Japan has had to resist the ever-growing deployment of Chinese para-military patrols and jet fighters close to the shores of the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea. Sometimes, the situation became so intense that outright conflict seemed like a nihilistic inevitability. As some security experts dramatically put it, China and Japan have been sleepwalking into war. Hawks in Beijing have utilized the disputes to fan the flames of anti-Japanese sentiment, which led to violent protests in China against Japanese interests and products in 2012.

As for Vietnam, the Southeast Asia country has been waging a millennial-old war of resistance against its powerful northern neighbor. In fact, Vietnam's very national identity has been shaped by what it sees as a struggle for independence against China. Unlike Japan and the Philippines, Vietnam has had to contend with both continental as well as maritime disputes with China. In 1974, China effectively evicted (South) Vietnam from the Paracel chain of Islands in the South China Sea, while mounting a full-scale invasion of Vietnam in 1979. By 1988, Vietnam faced another bloody skirmish with China over disputed islands in the Spratlys.

As one former high-level Vietnamese official, during a recent trip to Hanoi, told me, "We can't think about our maritime disputes with China without taking into consideration the potential impact on our land borders, including with neighboring countries that are friendly with China." Back in mid-2014, Vietnam and China relations suffered a huge setback after Beijing deployed a giant oil rig into Vietnamese-claimed waters. And yet, both Japan and Vietnam have maintained robust diplomatic channels with China, while rapidly developing their deterrence capabilities.

Both Tokyo and Hanoi have tried (with considerable success) to maintain large-scale economic ties with China, defend their territorial integrity, and avoid outright conflict. They have accomplished this difficult balancing act by combining pro-active engagement with a determined push to enhance their deterrence capabilities.

Leaders in Japan and Vietnam have tried to ensure territorial disputes with China don't define their overall relationship with Asia's new superpower. In economic terms, China is a leading trading partner and source of investments for Vietnam. With respect to Japan, China is a critical investment and consumer market as well as a key source of rare earth elements.

Diplomacy and Compromise

Pursuing (and maintaining) engagement with China has always risked domestic political backlash for rivals, especially among more hawkish circles, which view China as a monolithic expansionist power. In 2014, as disputed with China entered a dangerous stage, Japan's nationalist leader, Shinzo Abe, took a huge gamble when he instructed his diplomats to open communication channels with China, culminating in a formal dialogue between Abe and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, on the sidelines of the APEC Summit in Beijing.

Abe's meeting with Xi ended up in one of the world's most awkward handshakes, but it didn't take long before Japan and China resumed high-level talks among their foreign and defense ministries, and began exploring various confidence-building measures to avoid accidental clashes in the high seas.

At the height of their disputes in the South China Sea last year, Vietnam hosted China's leading foreign policy advisor, Yang Jiechi, and dispatched a top official, Le Hong Anh, to Beijing to de-escalate tensions. Soon, the two countries signed their third hotline, between their defense ministries, while the country's party chief, Nguyen Phu Troung, made a high-profile visit to Beijing in mid-2015. China not only withdrew the oil rig from Vietnamese waters ahead of schedule, but also didn't dispatch additional ones.

In exchange, Vietnam is said to have temporarily shelved the option of taking the disputes to an international court, keeping in mind there is no assurance whether a legal option would be effective at all -- except to provoke China. All the while, Vietnam as well as Japan have augmented their presence close to disputed features, fortified their position on the ground, and have embarked on a long-term initiative to enhance their defensive capabilities.

Throughout my conversations with Japanese and Vietnamese colleagues, I have repeatedly heard how much they admire the Philippines' courage to take China to the court and openly criticize its destabilizing actions. Yet, the Philippines can also draw crucial lessons from its neighbors. First and foremost, it has to acknowledge the importance of maintaining high-level communication channels with Beijing. So far, Aquino and Xi are yet to hold a single formal summit, and, to my knowledge, Manila has not signed a single hotline with China to prevent accidental clashes in the high seas and make sure they don't escalate into a full-scale conflict.

It is important to make sure Manila's bilateral relations with China are not primarily defined by their conflicts but rather by their long-term shared interests. The Philippines' trade balance with China seems to have deteriorated, while quite astonishingly the Philippines seems to be investing more in China than the other way around, raising speculations that China is effectively placing an investment siege. Finally, the Philippines must also draw lessons from poorer neighbors such as Vietnam, which, instead of relying on external powers, are investing in their own air, naval, and coast guard capabilities in order to push back against Chinese assertiveness.

With Xi Jinping expected to visit Manila for the APEC summit later this year, there is a crucial opportunity to kick start a more proactive engagement with Beijing, keeping in mind the importance of diplomacy to not only mobilizing friends but also outsmarting rivals. We can't easily resolve our long-standing disputes, but we can better manage them.

Ultimately, however, as the more powerful party Beijing bears the greater responsibility for reaching out to its much-weaker and vulnerable neighbor. To encourage good will, China should offer greater economic incentives without any geopolitical preconditions. For starters, China can also boost confidence-building efforts by permanently postponing the imposition of any Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the South China Sea.

It could also raise hopes for greater cooperation by ending its unilateral, coercive occupation of the Scarborough Shoal, ending para-military patrols close to Philippine-controlled features in the area, agreeing to a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, and start negotiating mutually-satisfying joint development schemes with its neighbors. More than anyone else, the ball is in China's court, but it is also necessary for the Philippines to re-calibrate its diplomatic posturing, driven by more reason than emotions, and learn from its more astute neighbors in Japan and Vietnam.