Insights on Chinese Defense Minister Gen. Liang’s Visit to Manila

Last week Chinese National Defence Minister Gen. Liang Guanglie, the fourth in command of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the world’s largest military force, paid a visit to Manila and held high level talks with Philippine National Defence Minister Ret. Gen. Voltaire Gazmin and Philippine President Benigno Aquino 3rd. Beijing said Liang’s goodwill visit to Manila aims to strengthen Philippines and China’s mutual trust and to deepen the two countries military ties. This important visit of a ranking People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and Communist Party of China (CPC) official deserves some insights.

First, the visit was the result of the consensus among Chinese leaders within the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the Communist Party of China (CPC) to accept the invitation of the Philippine government amid renewed tensions on the Spratlys. Beijing knowing the fact that since as of the moment they are not in the strategic position of victory over their claims on the Spratlys it would be good for them if it would have image to the international community that it is not being aggressive on its claims on the Spratlys and it is not lording over smaller countries with weaker military force such as the Philippines. In Chinese political culture, it is often said that image is more important than substance, and the visit of Gen. Liang would project the image that Beijing is willing to seat down and talk amicably albeit on the thorny Spratlys issue.

Second, the visit showed China’s awareness and respect of the close relationship of the Philippines and United States and the implication it would have to China if it would force the issue on the Spratlys. Thus, making a goodwill visit on the right time is beneficial for Beijing both on its relations with Philippines and United States. Aboard USS Vinson, the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier famous for carrying Osama bin Laden’s mortal remains, US ambassador to the Philippines Harry Thomas reiterated the US government’s commitment to assist the Philippines on military matters and to defend the country on external aggression invoking the 1951 Philippines-United States Mutual Defence Treaty. Thomas said to President Aquino aboard the USS Vinson that “American would be proud to stand by your side if ever we were in danger. Now and in the future, we will maintain our strong relationship, and we are dedicated to being your partner whenever you are in harm’s way.”

Third, while China knows how deep US-Philippines relation is, it is aware that it still can position itself well with the Philippine government and gain some strategic benefits at the end. China is well aware of two salient fixture in Philippine political system: (1) administration leaders come and go in less than a decade and even shorter just in the case of Former President Joseph Estrada (2) political leaders are not ideologically driven and thus are susceptible to be attracted in mutually beneficial deals. I expect that Beijing would continue on dealing with Philippine government offering them both economic and military deals while waiting for the time when the one who sits on Malacanan Palace would be willing to lean more and rely more with Beijing rather than Washington. That being said, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been doing talks with the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) since December of last year for the procurement of China-made military equipments.

Fourth, the visit was a test of the Chinese government on how the Philippine government and the Filipino public would react on a visit of a high-ranking Chinese official. Considering that there is a perception both in China and Philippines that the relations between the two countries are not a in very healthy situation following the 2010 Manila hostage-taking crisis and the alleged bullying of Chinese navy patrols and buzzing of jet fighters in the Spratlys, China wants to experience first-hand the real score in Manila and Beijing was not disappointed. The Chinese official was received well and tasted Filipino hospitality.

On the Spratlys issue, the Philippine government and President Aquino showed its soft attitude and stance on the issue. Manila spoke amicably on the issue though Beijing is the one who is more aggressive on Spratlys. Regardless of the the warm and cordial reception the Chinese official received on his visit to Manila, Chinese bureaucrats for sure know the non-confrontational and keep-thy-anger-till-it-burst attitude of Filipinos. They know that Philippines can be assertive if pushed too far. They know that in the 1970’s, Former President Marcos sent Filipino troops to Spratlys to dismantle facilities built by Chinese Taipei. Equally important, the visit was also a test to the Filipino public, NGO’s and political organizations in so far as as to how they perceive China. It is very evident that Philippine Leftists organizations (ex: Bayan Muna and Akbayan) have shown relative silence on the visit of Gen. Liang. If it was the case of an American defence minister it would be entirely different.

Though China since Deng Xiaoping era has long stopped exporting its ideology to the Philippines and started exporting military equipments to AFP, many Filipino Leftists particularly the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and its armed group the New People’s Army (NPA) still considers and follows Mao Zedong Thought on their half-a-century old struggle of establishing a Communist Philippines. No wonder one Chinese diplomat once quipped to a Filipino diplomat that the so-called Maoists in the Philippines must be following a different Mao. Suffice it to say, Beijing is very much pleased with Manila.

Fifth, Regardless of how many goodwill visits and nice diplomatic talks Manila and Beijing would happen, China’s two-point stance on Spratlys would not change for the foreseeable future. (1) Spratlys is their historical territory and they have sovereignty over it. (2) Spratlys issue must be peacefully resolved on bilateral basis through joint developmental explorations in the area. It is worth remembering that in 1997 Beijing dispatched then National Defence Minister Chi Haotian to Manila with the same purpose as of Gen. Liang has on his visit recently. But things appear to be just the same today in 2011 as it was in 1997. That’s the Chinese way of doing things on the Spratlys. They would talk and talk and appear conciliatory and compromising but they would not give in and give up on their position on the Spratlys. Side by side with smooth talks they would continue on building military-civil complex in the area and should the tension flairs up they would resort to diplomacy.

What should the Philippines do then? Unfortunately, at least for now, nothing much for my dear Pilipinas. Philippines is on the proverbial Catch-22 situation – a damn if you do, damn if you don’t kind of situation. On my previous column on PH.CN entitled “Policy Choices for the Philippines on the Spratlys Issue”, I wrote down several options that the Philippine government can pursue. You can visit my column archives on ProPinoy.net to read it.

The Spratlys would continue to be an irritant to the centuries old relationship of Philippines and China for the foreseeable future. The Chinese government is in no rush to settle it once and for all now or in the near future. Their 5000 years of civilization and 4000 years of experience in statecrafting have given them valuable wisdom on handling complex issue such as the Spratlys. For the meantime China would use its left-hand to press their claims and it would use its right hand for diplomacy.

The question then is until when China would have this approach? What would be the Spratlys issue game-changer? China would play this approach until it doesn’t see a calculated victory on their hand. Game-changer would be the United States and its propensity and history to be involved into foreign wars. Another game-changer would be Vietnam, who have had armed fights with fellow Communist China in the past, is the most aggressive among the contending nations on its military build-up.

Perhaps, Deng Xiaoping’s answer to Lee Kwan Yew on the Spratlys issue is a good advise for all the countries involved on the Spratlys issue. Paraphrasing Deng, he said “Let future leaders settle it for the sake of today’s peace”.

Photo credit: Staff Sgt. D. Myles Cullen, USAF, public domain.

J. Sun E.

Sun, a Filipino based in China, writes PH.CN on ProPinoy, a weekly column on Philippines-China relations, politics, history, and current events. He studied Political Science, History, and Foreign Languages in Philippines and China. Follow him on Twitter @phdotcn