No preconditions in Beijing’s offer to sit down and diffuse tensions
To diffuse tension over the disputed territories, Beijing is urging Manila to resume bilateral talks and is even offering to share the facilities it is building in the West Philippine Sea.
Zhao Jianhua, China’s ambassador to Manila, told a small group of journalists on Friday: “We want the Philppines to return to the negotiating table.”
He added that China would always welcome bilateral talks with the Philippines, even as Manila had abandoned it to pursue its claim with a United Nations arbitral tribunal.
Zhao stressed that China has no precondition to the resumption of talks, not even the dropping of the arbitration case Manila has lodged with the UN tribunal in The Hague which China does not recognize anyway.
In 2013, the Philippines questioned China’s nine-dash line claim over the South China Sea, which includes vast areas of the West Philippine Sea.
Manila anchors its position on the provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea or UNCLOS.
China has elected not to participate in the arbitration, which Zhao said was his country’s right also under the same international law.
Zhao explained that China had valid reasons not to participate in international arbitration.
First, he said that China has a bad history of foreign interference in its domestic affairs. In modern history, Western powers have tried but failed to colonize all of China.
Second, the envoy said that in China’s experience, bilateral talks have proved to be more effective in settling international disputes. And last, Zhao added that international law was often applied unfairly toward China.
Of all the available options to China, the ambassador stressed that they would not seek any military solution to the territorial disputes with the Philippines, adding that the 40-year diplomatic relations between Beijing and Manila remain peaceful, friendly and cooperative.
He acknowledged that problems in the West Philippine Sea was challenging and even contentious, but he said that relations between the Philippines and China should not be held hostage by a single issue.
Instead of focusing on differences, Zhao suggested that the Philippines and China should instead look at shared intentions, common ground, and strengthening economic ties.
Even with the disputes, he said that people-to-people relations remain strong. And on the economic front, he added that bilateral trade was robust at $44.4 billion, a growth of 17 percent from the previous report.
He conceded that bilateral talks were tough on both sides, but that was no reason to abandon peaceful negotiations. He noted that China’s bilateral negotiations with Vietnam took 50 years, with Russia 40 years.
Even if the Philippines and China do not reach an understanding on the issue soon, continuing peaceful talks was better than all other options, including those that trigger instability in the region, Zhao said.
Not meant to antagonize
Referring to China’s ongoing reclamation project on the disputed area, Zhao said, “It’s not meant to antagonize.”
As proof, he said that China would openthe facility under construction to other countries, including the Philippines, for non-military purposes. But he clarified that China would not allow protestors or people with a political agenda on the island.
In a text message to The Manila Times, Assistant Secretary Charles Jose, spokesman of the Department of Foreign Affairs, said, “That offer was made only to deflect international criticism of China’s reclamation work.”
Zhao, however, insisted that the Chinese facilities would be open, despite earlier media reports of their coast guard ships repelling Filipino fishermen with water cannons from entering the disputed territories. Referring to those encounters at sea, the ambassador blames media for hyping the incidents, and points out that the water cannons were merely warning the fishermen. The Chinese navy did not target people or parts of their boats that could have harmed them, the envoy said.
In reaction, Jose said, “China’s words and actions do not match. They drive away our fishermen from Scarborough Shoal even when they try to go there to seek shelter during inclement weather.”
He added, “When China illegally occupied Mischief Reef in 1995, they said the facilities were fishermen’s shelter but [it]later turned out to be a military garrison.”
Zhao was firm in saying that China had the right to reclaim land in the area, because they consider it as their terrritory.
Besides China and the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam also have competing claims over islands and reefs in the West Philippine Sea.
The ambassador added that China would not bow to international pressure to stop the reclamation and construction of facilities on it, not even if the United States told them to stop.
“China will stop [only]when the project is completed,” Zhao said.
He explained that with the Chinese history of foreign invaders, they were sensitive to other people telling them what to do.
Zhao conceded that he does not know how to diffuse tension between China and the Philippines and to lure Filipinos back to the negotiation table.
“There is no silver bullet,” he said, referring to diplomatic row. But for China, the ambassador said that its door would always be open for the Philippines.