In the absence of the United States, China is now flexing their muscles to show what they are capable of in Southeast Asia. Can ASEAN afford to trust them?

Not by any stretch of the imagination, based on the Philippine-wide survey conducted by the Social Weather Stations, a private Filipino polling organization. Its findings were released to the press last week.

These were the results came about even though President Rodrigo Duterte expressed at the start of his administration in June 2016 that Philippine foreign policy was to be weaned away from the country’s traditional ties with the US, and would warm up to China, India, Japan and Russia.

Among 14 countries in the survey, the Filipinos trust China the least. The respondents gave it the lowest net rating of seven percent only. Topping the trusted list was the US, followed in their order of net ratings: Canada, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Brunei, Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos.

Read also: Why China Acts Aggressively in the South China Sea

To a casual observer of geopolitical developments in the Asia-Pacific region—including the economic rise of China over the last 25 years to become the world’s second most powerful, its complementary military beefing up, and the quiet manner that it has reclaimed atolls and reefs in the international waters of the South China Sea (SCS), and erected military facilities in them in pursuit of its nine-dash-line territorial claim on almost all of the South China Sea—this is no surprise.

Add to that the foot-dragging of Beijing on the agreement with the 10 ASEAN members for more than 10 years over the Code of Conduct on the SCS. Obviously, China wants to complete its militarization of the international waters it claims as part of its territory before going beyond the “framework of the Code of Conduct.”

There is nothing wrong when China says it considers its “national interests first” in its negotiations with the ASEAN members Brunei, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines over their “territorial disputes.”

Read also Duterte to China: If You Want, Just Make Us A Province

But the disputed areas are more than 800 nautical miles from the nearest Chinese shoreline. These ASEAN members are not claiming sovereignty over these areas like China is. Furthermore, those areas were granted by the UN to the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to explore, exploit and benefit from.

To the ordinary thinking Filipino this merely means Beijing just disregards the rule of international law simply because it is aware there is no international law enforcer now, just as it was when Hitler pushed Germany in the late 1930s to annex the Sudetenland, violated the treaties Germany signed after World War 1, invaded Poland and eventually lost World War 2 with his AXIS allies in 1945.

There is no known quantitative survey yet that I know, but it is not hard to guess that Beijing’s refusal to negotiate its territorial dispute with the ASEAN members as a regional issue, and its delaying moves on the Code of Conduct are not acceptable to most Filipino academics, opinion writers and thinkers.

Read also Benham Rise: The New Flashpoint in Philippine-China Relations

However, the unfolding events starting today (Monday, March 5) with the National People’s Congress (the parliament) in Beijing has scheduled the removal of the 10-year term limit of President Xi Jinping and install his vision of China into the country’s constitution. Effectively, the rubber-stamp congress will revise the 1982 Chinese Constitution which limits the president’s term to two five-year tenures.

By enshrining Xi’s vision of China in the next years and beyond into the Constitution, it will ensure that his successors will have to continue the mission – unless somebody else with a stronger and more charismatic personality decides to revise the Charter again.

The 64-year-old Xi has consolidated his personal grip on Beijing’s political and military leadership and there is no one to rival him. He has done this with his anti-corruption drive which has convicted even once powerful political and military leaders.

Read also: Is An All-Powerful Xi Jinping and an Emboldened China Good for Southeast Asia?

He has embarked on an international mass media propaganda offensive to attain his goal to replace the US and its European and Asia-Pacific allies as the global top economic and military-political power by 2049—or 100 years after Chairman Mao Zedong and his communist army defeated US-supported Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and drove him and his troops to Taiwan (formerly Formosa).

Published articles by geopolitical analysts in universities and news media show varied predictions and reactions to Xi’s expected unlimited tenure and influence—as long as his health allows him.

Meanwhile, it will be safe to predict that Xi and his Central Committee’s standing committee or inner circle are now ready to implement their strategic diplomatic offensive to address the latest developments in Washington and Europe, the ASEAN, India and Japan.

Read also: Will India and ASEAN Counterbalance China?

While it is reasonable to believe the probability of a world war is not on the world’s screen, it is logical to presume that a trade war is afoot between the US and China because the latter is convinced this is the Chinese century and the American dominance of world trade and geopolitics is ending.

We, in ASEAN, can expect a more active diplomatic shuttling and communication exchanges between Washington and Beijing in a few months. There will be more aggressive propaganda offensives from China in the US, European capitals and the developing countries like the ASEAN, Latin American and Central Asian capitals. This will be in China’s digital media as well as the national and international TV-radio networks.

Read also: US and Vietnam Float Warily Together

Some development from Beijing and Taipei came as I was winding up this column. Reuters has reported that China has warned the US is “risking war” if US President Donald Trump signs a bill into law allowing American leaders to travel and meet their Taiwanese counterparts “at all levels.” This will violate the one-China diplomatic recognition of Beijing by the US. China claims Taiwan is ruled by a rebel government.

This merely means, in simple practical terms, that the ASEAN leadership and its collective effort must focus on trade. Japan, the US, the European Union, and the other ASEAN members are the four biggest importers of our agricultural, fisheries and finished goods. China and Russia are only fifth and sixth.

Philippine imports come mostly from the ASEAN members, with China second, and Japan third, followed by the US and the European Union.

Read also: Why Asia Is Trembling Over South China Sea Showdown

In short, what the ASEAN needs—as the superpowers engage in economic battle or trade in this decade—is better management of its fiscal, natural and human resources, increased productivity with the adoption of modern and scientific production technologies, and effective communicators.

Trusting China must wait until Beijing’s diplomacy and deeds prove it deserves to be trusted.

 


Guillermo (or Gil) H. A. Santos writes for the Manila Times. He was previously the Executive Director of the Philippine Press Institute and a desk editor and news correspondent for the Associated Press. He also worked as a Philippine presidential campaign consultant on geopolitics and economics.

This article was also published in The Manila Times.

Disclaimer: All opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the ASEAN Economic Forum.