By Ernest Z. Bower, Senior Adviser and Director of the Southeast Asia Program
Yesterday Philippine President Benigno Aquino III stood on the blood stained soil of Bataan province and reminded us all of the amazing resilience of the human spirit, the ability to forgive and reconcile and the powerful hope intrinsic to those two facts. Tens of thousands of Filipinos and Americans gave their lives fighting Japan on this hallowed ground a lifetime ago. In soft rain that reminded some present of the tears of heaven, Aquino solemnly observed that former enemies were now best friends. He said his country had “no greater allies than the United States and Japan.”
Delivering the Araw ng Kagitingan rites marking the 69th anniversary of the “day of valor” which ended one of the most horrific chapters of World War II, a paradigm shift was evident. The Philippines has moved beyond the obvious hedging of the Arroyo era and stepped up into the strategic circle of trust defining the future of the Asia Pacific. President Aquino said “Time has proven that we can count on allies like them [the U.S. and Japan] and I am confident they can stand by us should there be a threat again to our security and sovereignty.” With Chinese ambassador Liu Jianchao looking on, Aquino affirmed the United States is the Philippines’ “sole strategic ally.”
Clarity is helpful as the United States and most of the rest of the countries in the Asia Pacific strive to reach out to China to indicate that the fast rising power is welcome to neighborhood, and that its economic growth and diplomatic engagement is necessary for extending growth and prosperity in the world’s most dynamic region, but that it must respect the sovereignty and normative structure that has kept Asia largely war-free over the last three decades. While it has still not been well articulated, the long-term goal of most of China’s neighbors is to create frameworks or architectures which China can join, and even help to lead, as long as it is clear about its goals and intentions and respects its neighbors.
The challenge in this effort is to send China strong signals without feeding nationalist elements a script they believe amounts to a containment strategy. The best way to do so is to be clear and avoid misunderstandings and misinterpretation.
Earlier this year, three Chinese navy patrol boats had “an encounter” with a Philippine exploration ship in the Reed Bank area west of Palawan, near the disputed Spratley Islands. The Philippines sent its Coast Guard to avoid further confrontation, and the Chinese navy retreated. Such incidents are potential flash points that could result in conflict in the South China Sea.
President Aquino’s decisive description of the Philippine’s strategic outlook and reiteration of the importance of its alliances with the United States and Japan increases transparency and certainty in maritime Asia. His leadership and statesman-like posture are welcome contributions to prospects for peace and prosperity.
Ernest Bower is Chair of the Southeast Asia Advisory Board at CSIS.