Those following US-China relations realize that the upcoming Strategic and Economic Dialogue in Beijing on Thursday and Friday should be more exciting than most. First, there's the matter of the blind Chinese dissident who is rumoured to be under US protection in China. Second, there's the old favourite Sino-American irritant of selling more arms to Taiwan popping up again. Third, there's the Philippines asking for American support over its dispute with China over dominion over energy-rich islands in the South China Sea causing PRC discomfort over the US returning Douglas "I Shall Return" McArthur-style to its former colony. All these ongoing tussles have prompted some to believe that Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would forego a trip to Beijing, but they probably won't.
Focusing on the third matter, you'd think it's a slam-dunk thing that the US charm offensive in the Pacific is gaining strength with Manila having little choice but to renew strong ties with Washington. But, that's not necessarily the case. While the Philippines is clearly at loggerheads with China concerning territorial disputes, it's more of the PLA that's especially belligerent about the matter. Meanwhile, Chinese trade authorities still seek to use commerce to improve relations-especially with its neighbours.
The agricultural matter in question concerns the Philippines attempting to renew exemptions granted by the WTO on liberalizing the importation of rice. Alike with China, the Philippines' food staple is rice. However, a good indicator of its developmental laggard status is its inability to achieve self-sufficiency in rice production. Embarrasingly, many of its Southeast Asian neighbours alike Thailand and Vietnam have become rice exporters from using advances in agricultural techniques developed in the Philippines such as those by the well-known International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). So, to achieve self-sufficiency, an agricultural policy has been to keep out (more price-competitive) imports.
The Philippines is now seeking a rice import quota extension from the WTO for another five years (albeit with gradually relaxed provisions) as the current one is set to expire in June :
A five-year waiver for rice import quotas due to expire in June has been requested from the World Trade Organization (WTO) by the Philippines, which in exchange will reduce the applicable tariff...The country wants quantitative restrictions (QR) on rice, due to expire on June 30, 2012, extended to 2017, claiming "exceptional circumstances" such as food security and continuing efforts to make rice production more market-oriented. The current 40% in-quota tariff will be reduced to a still-unspecified level, and Manila will agree to annual reviews that could lead to modification or termination of the waiver.It again shows you how there are different political actors at play in the US when agricultural producers and trade authorities there want this quota struck down pronto, indicating discontinuities in US policy towards a minor power:
The Philippines’ appeal at the World Trade Organization (WTO) to stop the influx of imported rice is facing opposition from the United States government, which recently protested the country’s stricter regulations on meat handling, Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala said. Alcala, in an interview with the media on Thursday, said the US government has decided to block the Philippines’ bid to limit the entry of foreign rice in the local market, a regulation meant to protect Filipino farmers from competing with cheap and subsidized foreign rice...To the surprise of some Philippine officials, though, Chinese authorities are relaxed about granting an extension of these import quotas for rice:
China has expressed willingness to support the Philippine request before the World Trade Organization (WTO) to extend its special treatment through quantitative restrictions on rice imports. In a high-level meeting with National Food Authority (NFA) administrator Angelito Banayo in Beijing on April 26, Deputy Minister for International Trade Yu Jianhua said his country will support the Philippine request, citing the importance of economic cooperation between the two countries. This came as a pleasant surprise to the Philippine delegation led by Banayo and Agriculture Assistant Secretary Romeo Reside, along with NFA lawyer Gilbert Lauengco, who came to the Chinese capital to start formal bilateral negotiations seeking to extend quantitative restrictions on rice imports, which are otherwise due to expire on June 30, 2012.It indicates how security and economic policy are not as closely linked as many believe. The persons involved are different, as well as the interests at play. While the US seeks to pry open more foreign markets for (likely subsidized) rice, China has no real interest in exporting rice to the Philippines and sees a way to establish goodwill in trade over an issue it's not directly involved in but can influence given its increasing presence in Geneva.
All in all, it's an interesting case study which throws caution to blanket statements about the Philippines being "in the pocket" of the US or "moving away" from China. Again, the issues and context matters. I believe that the contest for Asia-Pacific hegemony between the US and China will be conducted in this fashion--small power by small power, minor issue by minor issue. Attention to detail will be key in winning over the Philippines and the rest.