COMMENTARY

Can we talk to China on West Philippine Sea?

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BASED on the reciprocity principle, I believed that if the Philippine government made any compromise, the Chinese side should also take certain actions or make certain commitments to show her sincerity. So I asked Madam Fu Ying, then-Deputy Foreign Minister of China: “In case the Philippine naval vessel withdraws from the Panatag lagoon, can the Chinese government guarantee that Filipino fishermen fishing in Panatag Shoal and nearby areas will not be harassed?”

That was a difficult question for her to answer. If she said “yes,” it would be tantamount to an official commitment from the Chinese government. But she could not say “no” either since an unfriendly answer of “no” would mean the end of our conversation. Being a brilliant and experienced diplomat, Madam Fu was able to give us a “yes” answer without saying the word “yes.” She told us that the Chinese authorities had never arrested any single Filipino fisherman.

In an effort to push Madam Fu to make a commitment instead of just stating a fact, I asked further: “It may be true that China had never arrested any Filipino fisherman in the past, but are you assuring us that you will not do so in the future?” Once again, Madam Fu managed to give another “yes” answer without saying “yes.” She told us: “What’s important is that we should educate our fishermen and make sure that no fisherman from either China or the Philippines will allow his fishing boat to be used by journalists, politicians or ultra-nationalists in going to the islands to perform acts such as hoisting flags or declaring sovereignty. Otherwise I don’t see any problem.”

Madam Fu then suggested that some concrete actions be taken to show the international community that the friendly relationship between the two countries had been restored. She mentioned that June 11 is Philippine-China Friendship Day, and the Filipino-Chinese community in Manila holds a dinner every year to commemorate this occasion. She told us that it had become a tradition that the incumbent Philippine Presidents always personally attended the celebration every year. Madam Fu expressed her hope that President Aquino would follow the tradition and grace the 2012 celebration despite the Panatag standoff. She said the presence of President Aquino would deliver a strong message to the whole world that the relationship between the Philippines and China was still cordial despite the territorial disputes. Once more, Mr. Lee promised that he would convey the message to President Aquino.

I told Madam Fu that if President Aquino attended the Friendship Day celebration and showed his sincerity to restore the friendly relationship between our two countries, China should reciprocate. I commented that the mere presence of the Chinese Ambassador in the Manila celebration would not be enough to impress the public that China was sincerely and actively patching up the bilateral relationship. After pausing for a while, Madam Fu promised that she would try to request then-Chinese President Hu Jintao to send a congratulatory message to the Philippines on her June 12 Independence Day. Such a message would give a strong signal to show China’s goodwill and sincerity.

I did not forget to mention to Madam Fu that it was not a good idea for China to ban tourist groups from visiting the Philippines. I pointed out that aside from the Chinese state-owned airlines, the Philippine Airlines, Cebu Pacific, Zest Air and the hotel industry in the Philippines were the main casualties of the tourist ban. I reminded Madam Fu that all these airlines and many of the hotels were owned by Filipino-Chinese. The travel ban might hurt the Philippine economy, but the ethnic Chinese entrepreneurs in the Philippines were suffering most. Madam Fu told us that the Chinese government did not impose any tourist ban, but most travel agencies were aware of the anti-Chinese demonstrations in Manila, thus refrained from organizing tour groups to visit the Philippines. Madam Fu instructed her assistant to make an appointment for Domingo Lee, who was newly appointed by President Aquino as a Special Envoy to the People’s Republic of China, and myself to meet Man Hongwei, director-general of China National Tourism Administration. We met Mr. Man after lunch and were able to get his commitment that once the relationship between our two countries improved, his Tourism Administration would immediately encourage the Chinese tour operators to organize tourist groups to visit the Philippines.

I also brought up the incident that shipments of Philippine bananas were reportedly rejected by the Chinese authority. Madam Fu assured us that the Chinese government did not impose any ban on the importation of Philippine fruits. She explained that since the media kept printing negative news on the disputes between the two countries, even the Chinese school children got angry and refused to eat Philippine bananas brought home by their parents. Madame Fu said that once the friendly relationship between China and the Philippines was normalized, the Philippine fruits would be accepted and welcome again by the Chinese population.

At this juncture, Mr. Lee remembered that his main mission was to bring the Chinese language teachers to Manila. Madam Fu expressed her regrets that she could not do anything to help in this regard, saying that in view of the anti-Chinese demonstrations in Manila, most parents of the teachers were reluctant to let their children go to the Philippines for safety concern. Frustrated by her statement, I made an unintentional comment, which seemed to have touched the nerves of the Deputy Minister. I said if the Chinese language teachers refused to go to the Philippines, the Filipino-Chinese schools would have to turn to Taiwan for help, but then the time was so short and the replacement Taiwanese teachers might not be able to arrive in Manila in time for the school opening. I did not have any intention to use Taiwan as a bargaining power, but upon hearing my comment, Madam Fu turned to her assistant and gave a stern instruction: “Tell the teachers to go. Our Foreign Affairs Ministry will guarantee their safety in the Philippines.” Then she turned to Mr. Lee and said: “Our Foreign Ministry assures these teachers of their safety. You have to give us your back-to-back guaranty.” Mr. Lee gladly agreed.

After our long conversation, Madam Fu treated us to lunch in the Foreign Ministry and gave us copies of her newly published book, When I Was There, which was a collection of her selected speeches, with her autograph. We were given full courtesy by the Deputy Minister, although we were not official representatives of the Philippine government.

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.

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