MANILA, Philippines – The Philippines must realize American decline in Asia and should mend its ties with China if it has any hope of resolving territorial disputes in the South China Sea, a British academic and journalist said on Monday, November 19.

“It doesn’t serve the Philippines well to think, well maybe the Americans will give us some support,” renowned scholar and China expert Martin Jacques explained during a lecture sponsored by The Center for Philippine Futuristics Studies.

Jacques, author of bestseller When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order, stressed that Manila should not expect results from a policy of assisting Washington in its so-called re-pivot towards Asia in exchange for help on the South China Sea.

“It’s a short-sighted game, because the wind is not blowing in this direction. The wind is blowing somewhere else,” he said in reference to China’s growing influence compared to America’s decline in the region.

Shift from US to China

According to Jacques, most Asian governments have already realized that it is in their interest to develop a good strategic relationship with China.

The Philippines, however, is still more linked via trade to the US and Japan.

“China’s rise is the opportunity for other countries in the region,” he said.

Jacques stressed that Manila should shift its focus from Washington to Beijing at a time when America is scrambling to regain a foothold in a region where it lost much of its clout in the last decade after the military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, but more importantly because of the economic rise of China.

Washington’s new Asia policy is “going to fail,” the expert explained, due to the fact that the strategy relies mainly on military muscle and refuses to acknowledge American economic decline over the past ten years.

“In 2002, the US accounted for 23% of all trade in East Asia, and China only 10%. Now it’s the reverse (…) And it’s inconceivable that that process will be reversed. There is nothing the Americans can do about it.”

PH-China enhanced dialogue

In spite of China’s growing power, Jacques insisted the Philippines should not give up its claims over the South China Sea (West Philippine Sea).

What Manila should do, in his opinion, is pursue a foreign policy of enhanced bilateral dialogue with Beijing instead of raising its concerns in public and multilateral forums like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

“A way has to be found to deal with these questions and a solution has to be found which doesn’t involve derailing, poisoning or worsening the relationship” because that will only lead to “a very sticky position,” he said.

On this issue the Philippines has a good example in Malaysia, one of the other 3 ASEAN claimants to the South China Sea along with Brunei and Vietnam but which enjoys healthy ties with China.

“Malaysia has similar arguments to the Philippines with China, but that has not resulted in a serious deterioration of relationship. It has remained warm during this period.”

No war over South China Sea

Whatever happens in the future, Jacques stressed that he sees no way China will ever go to war with the Philippines over the South China Sea, as this is only a territorial dispute with no historical implications, unlike the row over Senkaku with Japan.

On top of that, he said, “the Chinese haven’t handled themselves well either, because they don’t know what they want.”

Hardliners support the so-called Nine-Dash Line claiming virtually all the region, while other concerned parties like the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs favors a more limited — and legitimate — claim over the Paracel and Spratly island chains.

Jacques called on the Philippine government to “not lose the sense of perspective, fail to see which way history is moving” regarding the US and China.

“Smart governments think strategically, they have a sense of the future, they can recognize in the future what to do, what the priorities are and what they are not.”

– Carlos Santamaria