The late-2014 'icebreaker' meeting between Philippine President Benigno Aquino and Chinese President Xi Jinping raised hopes for a de-escalation in bilateral tensions amid the ongoing territorial standoff in the South China Sea.
Ecstatic about the possibility of a revival in Philippine-China relations, Aquino went so far as claiming a 'meeting of minds' with Xi during their short exchanges on the sidelines of the APEC summit in Beijing. It marked the first face-to-face talk between the two heads of state.
Since then, Filipino officials have expressed their optimism over a follow-up meeting between the two leaders in the near future, paving the way for a institutionalised high-level dialogue. A top-level Filipino diplomat recently confirmed to me that Xi and his foreign minister, Wang Yi, are expected to make an unprecedented visit to the Philippines for the 2015 APEC summit. There are, however, growing indications that the newly-generated sense of optimism has been premature, if not totally unfounded.
To begin with, the Aquino-Xi meeting was not a pre-arranged formal dialogue; not even similar to those held between Xi and his Japanese and Vietnamese counterparts on the sidelines of APEC. While Vietnam and Japan have engaged in concerted efforts to establish crisis-management mechanisms with China, the Philippines is yet to negotiate a hotline with its northern neighbour.
The ongoing legal standoff at The Hague, with the Arbitral Tribunal awaiting Manila's additional legal arguments against China, continues to embitter bilateral relations. Favouring bilateral dialogue and consultation, China has fervently opposed the Philippines' request for compulsory arbitration in the South China Sea, dismissing the Aquino Administration's legal maneuver as provocative and counterproductive.
Reflecting Manila's deep-seated mistrust towards Beijing, Filipino officials recently made a decision to effectively evict 18 Chinese experts employed by the National Grid Corporation of the Philippines (NGCP). The Chinese technicians, who have been involved in operating, maintaining and expanding the Philippines' electricity grid, have been working on behalf of the State Grid Corporation of China, which has a 40% stake in the NGCP. Filipino officials have (indirectly) cited national security considerations to explain Manila's refusal to renew the visas of the Chinese nationals.
Earlier this year, Manila and Beijing once again exchanged bitter accusations when Chinese Coast Guard forces allegedly rammed three Filipino fishing boats navigating close to the Scarborough Shoal. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei tried to deflect criticism by accusing the Filipino fishermen of aggressive maneuvers while indirectly placing the blame on the Philippine Government by urging it to 'enhance supervision and allocation of its own fishermen to prevent such an incident from happening again.'
The Philippines has also been alarmed by the latest satellite imagery which indicates expanding Chinese construction activities on islands in the South China Sea. The Fiery Cross Reef, for instance, having been artificially expanded to over 11 times its original size, now hosts approximately 200 Chinese troops. Defence officials in the Philippines estimate China has completed almost 50% of its reclamation project on the contested feature, which could soon host its own airstrip as a prelude to a Chinese Air Defense Identification Zone in the South China Sea. China has also ramped up its exploration of hydrocarbon and fisheries resources in the area. While boasting the discovery of the Lingshui 17-2 gas field, located about 150km south of Hainan province, Chinese officials have also reportedly finished a comprehensive survey of fisheries resources in the contested areas.
Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert Del Rosario urged his ASEAN counterparts to show greater resolve and unity amid China's purported aim to 'establish full control' over the South China Sea. The topic was at the heart of his discussions with his Southeast Asian counterparts during the Foreign Ministers Meeting (FMM) in January. Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman tried to reassure his Filipino counterpart by stating that the other participants in the FMM 'shared the concern raised by some foreign ministers on land reclamation in the South China Sea.'
Singapore is slated to assume the role of the country coordinator for ASEAN-China relations in August 2015. There is some hope that there will be a more proactive push by ASEAN on negotiating a Code of Conduct (CoC) in the South China Sea. Singaporean Foreign Minister K Shanmugan has expressed Singapore's 'common goal to try and do as much as we can to try to get to a proper document on (the) CoC.' During the ASEAN Defence Senior Officials' Meeting Plus, held in Kuala Lumpur, the ASEAN leadership actually pushed for placing the CoC issue on the agenda of the following meeting to be held in November.
But it is far from clear whether ASEAN will find the resolve and unity to push China back to negotiating the CoC. What is increasingly clear is that Manila and Beijing have a long way to go before improving their troubled relations.