‘Economic grouping should have tempered China’s might’
The leaders of the Asia Pacific Cooperation (APEC) member-economies should have seized the opportunity to take China to task for putting global trade under threat by aggressively staking its claim to the West Philippine (South China) Sea, a party-list lawmaker said on Friday.
Magdalo party-list Rep. Gary Alejano, a former Marine captain, made the assessment at the conclusion of the APEC meetings in Manila this week.
“The issue of Chinese reclamation should have been eventually put in the agenda of APEC since 30 percent of the global trade passes through South China Sea. Disruption of freedom of navigation and overflight will definitely destabilize the economies of countries in the Asia Pacific,” Alejano pointed out.
The Philippines has challenged China’s territorial claims before the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. Manila anchors its claim on the 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone provision in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which counts China as among its signatories.
China, however, lays territorial claim over the vast sea, which is believed to be rich in oil and gas reserves based on an alleged ancient 9-dash line concept.
Beijing refuses to recognize the UN arbitration proceedings, set to resume late this month.
While the thorny South China Sea issue was not in the APEC agenda, it was extensively discussed in bilateral talks between the Philippines and the US, Japan, Canada and other claimant countries such as Indonesia, Vietnam and Malaysia.
Speaker Feliciano Belmonte, Jr. of Quezon City said China is already feeling the pressure despite the exclusion of the issue from the APEC agenda, given the tough stance shown by President Aquino, as well as US President Barack Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
“Had it been on the agenda, China might have boycotted [the summit]. That would be a great loss. The presence of President Xi (Jinping) definitely added to the APEC’s gravitas, and he could not have been unaware of the others’ viewpoint,” Belmonte, a lawyer, said.
Alejano conceded to Belmonte’s viewpoint, but also noted that other countries’ explicit support to the Philippines surely worries China, which aspires to become Asia’s leader and challenge the United States as the world’s superpower.
“It can’t be ignored that many of them [APEC economies] have existing trade relations and investments in China, but US and Japan raising the issue by way of increased support for our defense is something that our country should be reassured of,” Alejano added.
Marikina City Rep. Romero Quimbo pointed out that cordiality beats aggression in drafting plans for economic development.
“It was treated the best way possible, not directly through APEC but through bilateral meetings. Otherwise, it would politicize the venue that was really intended for economic cooperation,” Quimbo said.
Not an APEC issue
Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr. said there was a previous agreement to “officially” keep the dispute out of the APEC agenda, as well as in the 2015 Manila Declaration.
There was an agreement among the APEC leaders that only those discussed will be reflected on the document that was passed at the conclusion of their meeting, he said.
“Declaration is based on consensus. All member economies vet the statement. The Statement reflects what was discussed in the summit,” Coloma said in a text message to The Manila Times.
“If it was not discussed then it could not be included,” he stressed.
President Benigno Aquino 3rd, however, will have a better chance of raising the disputes during the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) summit in Malaysia this week, especially since a number of the bloc’s members are also claimants (See related story).
It will be recalled that Obama put more pressure on China last Wednesday as he underscored the need to take “bold steps” to prevent the mainland from continuing with its reclamation activities and “militarization” of disputed areas in the contested territory.
Obama made the statement during a press conference after the signing of bilateral agreements with Manila amid calls from Chinese President Xi Jinping for the APEC meeting to focus on economic ties.
In deference to Xi, the APEC leaders’ did not officially tackle the issue.
Foreign Affairs spokesman Charles Jose, meanwhile, said the Philippines agreed not to raise the issue of territorial and maritime disputes upon the request of the Chinese president, made even before he arrived in Manila for the meetings, and also because the APEC was not the “proper venue” for discussing such issues.
Jose earlier said the Philippines decided not to discuss the issue of territorial claims given that an arbitration case remained pending before the International Tribunal of the Law of the Seas (Itlos).
“APEC is an economic forum and the South China Sea is not in the formal agenda,” Jose told reporters shortly after President Benigno Aquino 3rd delivered his concluding statement on the APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting (AELM).
Jose, however, argued that even though there were no formal discussions on the West Philippine Sea issue, it came into focus during bilateral meetings between Aquino and other leaders.
But when it comes to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) East Asia Summit, Jose added, “ibang usapan na yun.” [That’s a different matter altogether.]
Even if the Philippines was somehow cornered into submission to refrain from raising the West Philippine Sea issue during the APEC forum, Richard Heydarian, an assistant professor at the De La Salle University in Manila, said the country did “strike major agreements with focus on maritime security with the US, Vietnam and Japan.”
Not touching on the topic of the disputes was a strategy “to compartmentalize how issues would be discussed.”
“In the main APEC speeches, the SCS disputes were brushed aside. But during bilateral exchanges between Aquino and allied countries, it was front and center,” Heydarian said.
“That way, we avoided a diplomatic crisis with China, since Xi made his visit conditional on non-mentioning the disputes,” he added. He, however, recognized major agreements with the US, Vietnam and Japan – all of whom have also engaged in varying levels of diplomatic barbs with China because of its activities in the disputed areas. Bobby Tuazon, director for policy studies and in-house policy analyst at the Center for People Empowerment in Governance (CenPEG), said insisting on the inclusion of the dispute in the APEC meetings would have been divisive and may have even been inappropriate.
“The main agenda of every APEC summit since 1989 is always harmonious trade cooperation where any agreement is not even binding,” he added.
In fact, he said, the only common political issue taken up was terrorism, in light of the Paris attack, where all participants signed the joint statement without debate, but there was no substantive discussion done.
“APEC is just a social talking shop and that’s why the various delegations were not even called heads of state but heads of economies,” Tuazon pointed out.