Relations with Asian Neighbors

Relations with Asian Neighbors

For decades the Philippines was an active proponent of regionalism. In 1954 it joined Australia, Britain, France, New Zealand, Pakistan, Thailand, and the United States in the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization against the perceived threat from the Chinese and Indochinese communist regimes. This alliance was phased out in 1977.

Manila's quest for regional cooperation received a significant boost in the 1965-66 period, when bilateral problems between Indonesia and Malaysia that had been known as the confrontation--until then the main obstacle to regionalism in Southeast Asia--gave way to neighborliness. In August 1967 the Association of Southeast Asian Nations was formed by Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand to pursue economic, social, cultural, and technical cooperation.

The Philippines was also party to a multilateral dispute over ownership of the Kalayaan Islands, as Filipinos call some of the Spratlys, a scattered group of atolls west of the Philippine island of Palawan and east of Vietnam, also claimed in toto or partially by China, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Vietnam. Tomas Clomas, a Manila lawyer, visited the islands in 1956, claimed them for himself, named them Kalayaan (Freedomland), then asked the Philippine government to make them a protectorate. Philippine troops were sent to the Kalayaans in 1968. All parties to the dispute were interested in possible offshore oil around the islands. The law of the sea grants to any country that receives international recognition of a claim to even a rock sticking out of the water exclusive economic rights to all resources, including oil, within a 200-nautical-mile radius of that point. Manila regularly tried to extract from the United States a declaration that it would defend the Philippines' claim to the Kalayaans as part of the Mutual Defense Treaty between the Republic of the Philippines and the United States of America, but the United States just as regularly refused so to interpret that treaty.

Aquino broke the tradition that a Philippine president's first overseas trip was to Washington. She visited Jakarta and Singapore in August 1986. Indonesian president Soeharto promised not to aid Muslim separatists in Mindanao but cautioned Aquino not to attempt reconciliation with communist insurgents. Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew echoed Soeharto's warning. Both leaders encouraged the Philippines to find a way to extend United States base rights. Although the governments espoused differing world views, the Philippines has had few disputes with Indonesia or Singapore, and relations remained neighborly in the early 1990s. The Philippines enjoyed a cooperative relationship with Thailand. The two countries in 1991 had no disputes and many common interests, including a history of security cooperation with the United States.

Malaysia

Philippine relations with Malaysia have been bedeviled by a lingering dispute over the status of Sabah, the northeast corner of Borneo. The Philippines based its case on a claim to territories that were part of the former Sultanate of Sulu, a nineteenth-century entity whose territory straddled the present maritime boundary between Malaysia and the Philippines. In 1991 one descendent of the sultan, a Filipino citizen, still received a stipend stemming from cession of the sultanate to a British company. Philippine presidents have revived this claim occasionally. It was revealed in 1968 that Marcos was training a team of saboteurs on Corregidor for infiltration into Sabah. Marcos later decided to drop the claim, but the aggrieved Malaysians insisted on such an explicit, humiliating public renunciation that no Philippine president could meet their conditions. The Philippine constitution, by not mentioning Sabah, seems to have dropped the claim. Aquino rushed a bill to Congress in November 1987 to renounce the claim once and for all, hoping to get the issue out of the way before Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad arrived for the ASEAN summit in December, but Congress did not act.

Vietnam

There was little diplomatic or cultural intercourse between the Philippines and Vietnam until the 1960s. The Philippines contributed a small civic action unit to the United States effort during the Vietnam War but refused to allow the United States to mount B-52 bombing runs from Clark Air Base. (The aircraft flew from Guam, and were refueled from Clark.) Beginning in 1975, tens of thousands of Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees entered the model refugee camp set up by the United Nations at Morong on the Bataan Peninsula. A clean, well-run place, it provided Vietnamese and Cambodians bound for the United States with training in English, American history, and vocational skills. The Philippines joined other ASEAN states in opposing Vietnam's occupation of Cambodia, even indicating a willingness to support the Khmer Rouge, if necessary, to rid Cambodia of Vietnamese forces.

Japan

Philippine-Japanese relations were smooth and successful in the early 1990s, despite bitter memories of the cruelty of the Japanese during their occupation of the Philippines in World War II. In mid-1986 the Philippines, concerned about Japan's possible remilitarization, joined with other Asian nations to protest the adoption of revisionist history textbooks by the Japanese education ministry. For the majority of Filipinos, however, World War II memories have faded or are nonexistent. Japan was a major source of development funds, trade, investment, and tourism in the 1980s, and there have been few foreign policy disputes between the two nations.

Aquino visited Japan in November 1986 and met with Emperor Hirohito, who offered his apologies for the wrongs committed by Japan during World War II. New aid agreements also were concluded during this visit. Aquino returned to Japan in 1989 for Hirohito's funeral and in 1990 for the enthronement of Emperor Akihito.

China

Philippine relations with China and Taiwan were cautious in the 1990s. Manila's relations with Beijing were hostile in the 1950s and 1960s. The unspoken threat of Chinese aid to the New People's Army was ever present but never materialized. By contrast, the Filipino-Chinese business community had many connections with relatives and partners in Taiwan. Diplomatic relations between Manila and Beijing were opened in 1973. Since that time, the relationship has been correct but not warm.

In 1988 Aquino visited China, met with elder statesman Deng Xiaoping, and made a ceremonial pilgrimage to her ancestral home and temple in Fujian Province. The closer relationship fostered by that trip later dissipated because of Beijing's sensitivity to what was perceived as a Philippine bias in favor of Taiwan. A Philippine government spokesperson had inadvertently referred to a visiting delegation from Taiwan as representatives of "the Republic of China." The disclosure of a secret visit to Taiwan, made by the Philippine secretary of foreign affairs, Raul Manglapus, in October 1989, upset Beijing even more. In 1990 Aquino reaffirmed the Philippines' one-China policy, but she reserved the right to develop trade and economic ties with Taiwan. China, for its parts, has sought with limited success to conduct an "oil diplomacy" with the Philippines, a country completely dependent on imported oil. In December 1990 Aquino welcomed the Chinese premier, Li Peng, to Manila after earlier having suspended official contacts in the wake of the June 1989 violence around Beijing's Tiananmen Square.


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