The situation following the Hague decision in favor of this country is expected to intensify the misunderstanding between two neighbors in the South China Sea aka West Philippine Sea. On the one hand, the decision portrays China as a squatter and on the other hand picture, this country as a weakling which cannot enforce the court’s decision.
This is indeed unfortunate given that this country’s relationship with the Middle Kingdom antedates our dealings with the United States by centuries. Long before the “manifest destiny” that brought the Yanks to our shores, the galleon trade brought the Chinese to the Philippines for centuries.
While good relations between this country and the US continued during the first half of the twentieth century despite the bloody Fil-American war, our relations with China was interrupted with the communist takeover of that country after the Second World War and the support it gave to the NPA in the late sixties. Relations however resumed with the visit of Marcos to Mao in the mid-seventies which picked up considerably since then to the point that China might conceivable displace the US as our major trading partner in the near future.
President Arroyo ratcheted the economic relations during her term with the promise of heavy involvement by the Chinese in the infrastructure projects of her administration. The perception that this economic relation was attended by hanky-panky placed the deals in the freezer. When Aquino took over certain incidents in the high seas such as the land banking activities by China, the Philippine Navy capture of Chinese fishermen and Obama’s rebalancing act the pivot to Asia and finally the filing of a case by this country in The Hague created a very tense situation in the area.
With the decision of the court to favor the Philippine plea and China’s unwillingness to heed the decision of the five wise men in the Netherlands our relations with China is reaching a level of recriminations which if not properly managed could easily lead to unpleasant situations not necessarily bordering on violence. Luckily for us, despite the shrill calls by nationalistic elements in this county to confront China the President has heeded Kipling and is keeping his head when some guys around him are losing theirs.
His order to the cockpit for a soft landing followed by the suggestion of bilateral talks with China has been well received by both sides. This augurs well for a successful management of the crisis. The choice of FVR as special envoy to handle this case is a good move given that the former president is well expected in the mainland and shown his diplomatic skills in the past in handling the Mindanao crisis.
What is at stake here for both countries?
On the part of China it badly does not want to appear as the super bully at a time when she is working very hard to sell the one belt one road initiative or the New Silk Route and the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank initiative. Indeed these initiatives by the new superpower is drummed up as a sort of mini Marshall Plan for developing counties in Central and Southeast Asia which was the dream of Deng Xiao Ping. China’s attempt at an Asian co-prosperity sphere could easily lose support if it is perceived to be a disguise for hegemonic intentions which land banking activities in the West Philippine Sea is an example. In short to paraphrase Marx, China has nothing to lose but a few islands but it has a whole world to win.
On the part of the Philippines, the legal argument is not the only mode to win our case. We have always pointed out in previous columns that our moral victory will be pyrrhic because China will not honor the decision and we will not be backed up by allies who considering their narrow national interests would rather side with China than this country as predicted. Both the ASEM and ASEAN did not sing hallelujah at the Dutch decision and both even prevented the issue to be taken up. In short these allies adhere to the Churchillian dictum that there are no permanent friends, only permanent national interests.
Is there another mode of settling the issue? Of course there is. In this country, settling out of court is popular in tricky situations that require endless litigation. Even the courts encourage this. Will this mode be more productive politically as well as economically?
Perhaps so, politically it is already a plus since we will retain the friendship of an old friend who unlike our former colonizers never invaded this country. Economically on a cost-benefit analysis the benefit of retaking the islands by whatever means is definitely going to be higher than the benefit that our shred negotiators can wangle from a trading partner the presumptive next economic superpower of the world in the near future.
For people still harping about multilateral negotiations with China please perish the thought. Our allies as mentioned earlier are glued on their selfish and narrow country interest be this economic or political. We cannot be used as a pawn to advance these interests.
What are the possible areas for discussion with China? First of we would suggest freedom to fish in disputed areas. There are templates for fishing agreement in parts of the world.
This is the most urgent. China could help us develop our mariculture and aquaculture to lessen fishing in the high seas which is always perilous and costly for our fishermen who have to chase the fish in the deep blue seas.
Of energy resources sharing system, this can be done using the North Atlantic template enjoyed by the U.K. and Scandinavian countries. Here we have to point to Article 12 as an impediment but since we are already on the verge of amending the charter to allow for a federalist set-up, we might as well include this item in the agenda. Last but not the least is to pick up where GMA left off.
For those who fear a Chinese hegemon we do not believe that this is in the cards. It is not to the best interest of China to push the envelope in the China Sea too far, not with the Seventh Fleet and a reinvigorated Japanese Navy closely watching developments. China does not need to dominate the economy of Asia or the Asean which she needs as a market and as allies to support her diplomatic moves in the world scene. A benevolent superpower will get China much farther than being a hegemon.