Can we talk to China on West Philippine Sea?

AFTER returning to Manila the next day, I drafted a memo in the name of Domingo Lee in his capacity as Special Presidential Envoy to China. The memo was addressed to President Aquino, reporting on the background of our trip to Beijing and narrating the substance of our conversation with China’s Deputy Foreign Minister Fu Ying. The second part of the memo enumerated the various recommendations discussed during our meeting.

I received a call from Mr. Lee on June 1, telling me that he decided not to give the memo to the President since he was told by the President’s brother-in-law that President Aquino got irritated every time he heard the word “Panatag.” I reminded Mr. Lee that he had made a commitment to Madam Fu and it would be embarrassing if he did not do something. If he gave the memo to the President and nothing happened, he could at least tell Madam Fu that he had done his best. I also explained to Mr. Lee that every single paragraph of the memo started with the words “Madam Fu Ying.” If President Aquino got irritated by the memo, he would be mad at Madam Fu. On the other hand, if the President would be happy with the contents of the memo, then the credit for bringing the message would go to the Special Envoy. I urged Mr. Lee to give the memo to the President, assuring him that he had nothing to lose.

In the late evening of June 2, I received another call from Mr. Lee, informing me that he had just given the memo to the President. He said he took the opportunity of attending the opening of a restaurant owned by the President’s relatives that evening. Knowing that President Aquino would also be there, he brought with him the memo and gave it to the President without discussing the issues, only asking him to take a look when he was free.

It appeared that President Aquino did read the memo and also took actions. In the morning of June 4, newspapers carried the headline news that the President ordered the Philippine official vessel to leave Panatag Shoal, giving the reason that a typhoon was approaching. Furthermore, Malacañang Palace told the Chinese community to reschedule the Philippine-China Friendship Day celebration since the President would be returning from his UK visit only on June 11. The local Filipino-Chinese community moved the commemoration to June 13 and President Aquino personally attended the event as the guest of honor and speaker. Beijing had also responded accordingly. Chinese President Hu Jintao sent his congratulatory message to President Aquino on June 11, extending the warm greetings of the Chinese people on the occasion of the Philippine Independence Day.

Things seemed to work well and relationship between the two countries appeared to have warmed up. I was hoping that the two governments would follow up with dialogues to finalize some concrete agreements.

Unfortunately, just after a few days, our Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario openly lambasted China for “breaching agreement.” He said that the Philippine government ordered the withdrawal of the naval ship but China did not withdraw the marine surveillance vessels. I immediately called up Mr. Lee and asked him to seek an audience with the President or call up the Foreign Secretary, to clarify that the Chinese official vessels were outside the Panatag lagoon. Only Chinese fishing boats were there in the lagoon and we never demanded their withdrawal. In fact, we should encourage our own fishermen to go into Panatag lagoon and do their fishing there. However, for fear of irking the President and antagonizing the Foreign Affairs Secretary, Mr. Lee refrained from taking any further action.

Some political analysts were of the opinion that there was an attempt to use the Philippines to undermine the friendly relationship between China and the ASEAN community. I refused to accept such a theory but chose to believe that Secretary del Rosario was misinformed about the Panatag situation. It was most unfortunate that his accusation of China breaching the agreement had caused damages to the mutual trust between Manila and Beijing. When reporters of foreign media asked the spokesman of the Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry to comment on Secretary del Rosario’s statement, the Chinese official simply replied that there was no agreement between the two governments. We could not blame this Chinese official for saying so since there was no written agreement but only verbal understanding at that time.

Soon enough, Secretary del Rosario announced that the Philippines would file a case with the Permanent Court of Arbitration of the United Nations to contest the Chinese sovereignty claim over the West Philippine Sea. Instead of seeking dialogues with Beijing, Secretary del Rosario started to travel around the various ASEAN member countries and other allies such as the US, Japan, Australia and European nations, soliciting their support in our confrontation with China. President Aquino stirred a diplomatic controversy by comparing China to Nazi Germany while he was visiting Japan. The bilateral relationship between the Philippines and China had abruptly deteriorated and, as a consequence, China started to chase away Filipino fishing boats from the Panatag area. Our poor fishermen from Zambales and Pangasinan could not go to their traditional fishing ground and, indeed, faced serious difficulties in earning their living.

In the later part of 2012, it was reported that Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV received a memo from President Aquino, and the senator made several trips to China, to talk to his contacts there, but failed to broker any peace deal in connection with the Panatag dispute. It was not revealed what memo the President had given the senator, but there was a possibility that it could be the memo I drafted in the name of Special Envoy Domingo Lee.

Before Secretary del Rosario resigned earlier this year, he concluded that it was impossible to talk to the Chinese since China was asserting indisputable sovereignty claim over the whole South China Sea and left no room for negotiation. This view is refutable. It is because both the Philippines and China are claiming indisputable sovereignty over the same territories that we need to sit down and talk.

Throughout the past four years, the Aquino administration maintained the position that the Philippine government should not talk to China on a bilateral basis. We chose to go to the Permanent Court of Arbitration, at The Hague, to contest the Chinese sovereignty claim over the West Philippine Sea. However, from the very beginning, China had refused to participate in the arbitration proceedings and clearly stated that she would not honor any decision rendered by the Court.

Former Solicitor General Estelito Mendoza has been calling the Philippine government to withdraw the arbitration case before any decision is rendered. He points out that the Philippines is endeavoring a futile case in the Permanent Court of Arbitration. China has already stated that she is not going to abide by any ruling made by the Court. What can we expect to achieve from the Court decisions, except maybe humiliating China in the international community? What actual benefits do we get? China will become more antagonistic and the doors of dialogue and negotiation will be closed more tightly, and we may lose our territories forever.

Ambassador Rosario Manalo, a very distinguished diplomat of ours, recently told the media that the Philippines should conduct dialogues with China based on the Declaration on the Conducts of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC). She emphasized that the Philippines and China should focus on the issue of sharing resources rather than disputing over territorial sovereignty. Mrs. Manalo assailed China for harassing Filipino fishermen on Panatag Shoal, but added that she believed such act might be a retaliation by the Chinese government over our military alliance and joint military exercises with the US in the Western Philippine Sea. If one reads the minds of the Chinese leaders, he will know that it is advisable to have friendly dialogues with Beijing rather than bringing in other powers to help us challenge China.

I have decided to disclose our 2012 dialogue with the Deputy Foreign Minister of China since I believed this experience would serve the purpose of making two points clear. Firstly, it is not impossible to conduct dialogues with Chinese government officials and, secondly, it is definitely possible that we talk to the big powers on equal ground. If an amateur diplomat in the person of the Special Presidential Envoy and a layman like this author can “negotiate” and broker a deal with the Chinese high officials, how much more with our career diplomats?

Over their telephone conversation, President-elect Rodrigo Duterte informed US President Barack Obama that he does not rule out the possibility of having direct dialogues with China on territorial disputes. Let us hope that our new leader and his administration will achieve something to really benefit our nation and our people.

Esteban G. Pena Sy is a student of Asian Studies. He is also formerly president of the UP Asian Center Students’ Association and a former lecturer at the University of the Philippines

Source: Manila Time