By JAMES HOOKWAY
BANGKOK—Philippine President Benigno Aquino III faces a delicate task in China this week: taking up his country’s claim to the troubled waters of the South China Sea without undermining the increasingly important economic relationship between the two countries.
China is now the Philippines’ third-largest trading partner, with bilateral trade up 35% to $27.7 billion in 2010, and Manila views its gigantic northern neighbor as a potentially valuable source of investment and tourism. Philippine officials have said they expect Mr. Aquino to sign commitments on this trip, which runs from Tuesday to Saturday, that could generate $50 billion in two-way trade by 2016.
But relations between the two countries have grown distinctly frosty this year over their claims to the South China Sea. Mr. Aquino is urging China to join his call to have the United Nations International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea settle a patchwork quilt of competing claims to the potentially oil-rich Spratly Islands, though Beijing earlier rejected the Philippines’ proposal.
“China’s not to going to throw the dice at a tribunal which could undermine their claim to the entire region,” said Carl Thayer, a professor at the Australian Defence Force Academy at the University of New South Wales and a long-time observer of the South China Sea dispute. “There’s too much at stake and China is in a much stronger position.”
After meeting with President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, Mr. Aquino plans to visits Xiamen, where his late mother, democracy icon Corazon Aquino, planted a tree on a visit nearly two decades ago. Like many Filipinos of Chinese ancestry, she traced her roots to Fujian province. Mr. Aquino also plans to bring at least 200 Filipino businesspeople to help step up trade and encourage Chinese investment in mining and infrastructure projects that he hopes will ramp up economic growth at home.
Analysts say Mr. Aquino will be wary of doing anything that could trip up his economic mission. Last week he told Chinese media in Manila that the countries’ relationship was like a marriage and that both sides have a role in making it work. But Mr. Aquino is also facing pressure to stand up to China.
“He’ll get criticized if he doesn’t raise the South China Sea,” said Ian Storey at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.
The Philippines has pressed its claims to the South China Sea harder in recent months. Under previous President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and during the early months of Mr. Aquino’s presidency, the Philippines went out of its way to curry favor with China.
Last December it chose not to send a representative to the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Norway honoring Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, a gesture aimed at saving the lives of three Filipinos sentenced to death by China after being convicted of smuggling drugs into the country. But when the three were executed in March despite the Philippines’ appeals for clemency, Mr. Aquino began taking a harder approach to Beijing.
Philippine officials have accused Chinese vessels of hindering oil and gas exploration in a portion of the waters known as Reed Bank, and the Philippines has vowed to step up its military capabilities to defend the country’s economic interests. The U.S. has said it will assist the Philippines, a treaty partner, in the event hostilities break out in the South China Sea, which in addition to having oil and gas potential is a rich fishery
Vietnam, too, has complained loudly of China’s increasingly assertive claims to the South China Sea.
Hanoi claims parts of the Paracel and Spratly island chains, while the Philippines claims the Spratlys. Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan also maintain claims to parts of the sea, crossed by some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. The long-running dispute has triggered intermittent and sometimes lethal clashes.
In June, Vietnam accused a Chinese fishing boat, backed up by two military vessels, of snapping the cables on an oil-exploration craft. That incident followed a similar one in May and triggered a sharp exchange of words between Hanoi and Beijing. Vietnam later held a series of live-fire exercises in its waters.
China, which dismisses the complaints of both Vietnam and the Philippines, has said repeatedly that it would prefer to negotiate rights to the South China Sea with other claimants individually—according to analysts, out of concern that in a multilateral setting its substantial military and economic power might be diluted. The U.S. angered China last year by lending its support to proposals for multiparty talks.
Tensions have escalated since China launched its first aircraft carrier earlier this month, enabling Beijing to project its military power much farther than previously. Vietnam and the Philippines, though they lag far behind China, also are working to upgrade their naval power. Vietnam expects to take delivery of six Russian-made submarines in three years, while the Philippines last week took delivery of its newest warship, a former U.S. Coast Guard cutter.