Can we talk to China on West Philippine Sea?


First of a series

MAYOR Rodrigo Duterte has been elected as our new President for the next six years. The whole nation puts high hopes on him for bringing changes to the political, economic and social life of our people, maybe even the directions of our diplomatic relations. The President-elect has already indicated that he will initiate peace talks with both the leftist organizations and the Muslim separatist groups. He also mentioned that his government will seek dialogues with China for a peaceful settlement of the territorial dispute over the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea). If the President-elect can successfully achieve all these objectives, he will be the most qualified person to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Mayor Duterte told the media that with the vision of achieving lasting peace and stability in our country, he is working for the return of Mr. Jose Ma. Sison, founder of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP). The President-elect also announced that he is inviting the CPP to join his government, setting aside certain cabinet positions for the leftist leaders. If his plan goes smoothly, Mr. Duterte will bring an end to the decades-long armed struggle between the leftist groups and the government and achieve national unity and solidarity.

Duterte also indicated his desire to have serious peace talks with the Muslim separatist groups. Since he has established time-tested friendship with the leaders of the various Muslim groups over the past years, the incoming President may be able to achieve something that his predecessors failed to do. For the peace, stability and prosperity of our country, the whole nation prays for the success of the new leader in his endeavors.

Whether the incoming President will bring any change to our foreign policy, especially our attitude toward China vis-à-vis the territorial dispute over the West Philippine Sea, is yet another issue that will not only be a deep concern of our people but will command the attention of the international community as well. Mr. Duterte had advocated that the Philippine government should seek dialogues with China in order to find an amicable solution to the territorial disputes between our two countries. Not surprisingly, he invited severe criticisms from certain sectors. Opponents believe that it is impossible to have any meaningful dialogue with Beijing. Some critics insist that being a smaller and weaker nation, the Philippines can never talk to China on one-on-one basis with an equal footing.
Personally, I believe that those statements of Mayor Duterte’s critics are fallacies.

Regardless of the size of economy, military strength or international status, being a sovereign state, the Philippines can negotiate with the Chinese authorities on an equal level. We can face any Chinese government official for dialogues and negotiations with dignity. In fact, this author had participated in an unsolicited and unauthorized dialogue with Madam Fu Ying, deputy minister of Foreign Affairs of China, on the disputes between our two countries, and, in a way, we did achieve good results from our “unofficial negotiation.”

The dialogue took place in Beijing on May 29, 2012. The background was that on April 10 of that year, BRP Gregorio del Pilar of the Philippine navy tried to arrest some Chinese fishermen in the Panatag Shoal lagoon (Scarborough Shoal or Huang Yan Island as the Chinese call it). Two Chinese Marine Surveillance vessels came to intervene and a standoff occurred. The situation prolonged for more than a month and no solution was in sight.

Expectedly, the bilateral relationship between China and the Philippines went sour. Angry Filipinos held demonstrations in front of the Chinese consulate office in Manila on May 11 to protest the “Chinese aggression.” Some Chinese activists also protested near the Philippine Consulate General, in Hong Kong, on the same day against “Philippine aggression.” Chinese tour groups to the Philippines were cancelled. Our banana shipments to China were rejected, allegedly failing to pass the Chinese quarantine requirements.

The tension was felt in the Philippines and China alike. As a consequence, more than 300 Chinese language teachers, who were supposed to teach in the local Philippine Chinese schools, refused to come. The absence of these teachers would cause a dilemma, since schools would be opening in early June. The local Filipino-Chinese community turned to Domingo Lee for help. Mr. Lee, who was newly appointed by President Aquino as a Special Envoy to the People’s Republic of China, was requested to make a trip to Beijing to convince the Chinese government to send those teachers. Mr. Lee asked this author to join him, hoping that I might be of help in his meetings with the Chinese officials.

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


Please follow our commenting guidelines.


  1. Alfonso Uriarte on

    Your only basis for saying we can negotiate with China is the fact that we are a sovereign state? That is naive to say the least!

  2. Joshua Schneider on

    China is the elephant in the Asian Crescent. But it does represent a unique opportunity to enrich the Philippines. We are fortunate that there is a wealth of oil and natural gas within our territorial waters. We are unfortunate in that the last few years have been wasted on (what should be called) petty squabbles.
    We need to understand that the US Navy is not the power it once was. See this recent article from the US House Armed Services Committee:

    It will take a lot of years for the US Navy to rebuild its self, if it so chooses. We should not count on them in the near future. China is going to drill, we know that.
    China if nothing else is a economic powerhouse that can be used to benefit the Philippines. Yes there is ongoing problems with Chinese fishermen, nothing new here as poaching is as old as the sea its self. We need to look at the much bigger picture. A partnership with China in developing our offshore resources will bring Billions of pesos over the next few decades. It is a chance to enrich our country that should not be squandered.
    Lets not let ourselves be sidetracked with the smaller issues, and hope that our new President will go forward to benefit the Philippines as few have every been given the opportunity.