Terraforming Diplomacy: Beijing, Manila and the Scarborough Shoal

Over the last eight years I’ve commissioned, edited or led a dozen or more research studies and analytical pieces on the South China Sea disputes.   China’s assertiveness in the region, and especially the way that it has operationalized its diplomatic and strategic interests over the last two years, have lent considerable urgency to the issue. The most recent development in this story has been the changing relationship between Beijing and Manila, and its impact on regional security dynamics,  US-led “hub and spoke” arrangements in particular.

This, in the US journal The National Interest:

The past few weeks have seen a kind of whirlwind for the Rodrigo Duterte administration. “Rody,” as the Philippine president is affectionately called, made a historic trip to Beijing, where he met President Xi Jinping and returned with multiple billion dollars’ worth of Chinese investments. One of the things he promised to disaffected fishermen was to seek the restoration of their access to the Scarborough Shoal: the issue at the heart of a Chinese-Philippine conflict that has simmered for years—from April 2012, when the fishermen’s incident took place, to Manila’s filing of a legal suit against Beijing in the Permanent Court of Arbitration—characterized by recurring tensions in the waters around the disputed shoal.

Duterte returned from that trip with the official claim that he had asserted Philippine rights over the shoal, but he left it at that. “I leave it to the Chinese authorities what they will do in the next few days. We talked about it but I leave it to them,” he said. But true enough, how subsequent developments turned out seem to speak of the effectiveness of his talks with Xi. Reports started to emerge from local Philippine fishermen that they were able to fish around the shoal without harassment from the China Coast Guard (CCG) for the first time since April 2012. The loads of marine products harvested from the shoal, including more exotic species such as marlin and yellowfin tuna, arriving at Philippine piers aboard the boats, not to mention the jubilant smiles on the faces of the fishermen, are undeniable.

Adding to this euphoria have been reports of camaraderie between Philippine fishermen and CCG personnel, sharing foodstuffs and catches. Apparently, the Chinese are not such hard-headed, indifferent souls as to be oblivious to the plight of poor fishermen, merely trying to eke out a decent livelihood.

Diplomacy seems to have worked. But only partially.

Read the rest here.