ON the day the news about the sighting of a Chinese dredging ship on Mischief Reef came out in the media, two other Filipino journalists and I found ourselves having tea with some visitors from Beijing.
You Jianhua, director general of the Coordination Bureau, International Department of Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, said it was his first visit to Manila and it was for a three-day mission to explore the possibility of holding a “high-level regional people’s dialog” within the year.
Manila is being considered as a possible venue for the important meeting that will also take up issues about the integration of the Association of Southeast Asian Nation (Asean) economies this year.
One of the objectives of the integration is to create a single market and production base by ensuring a free flow of goods, services and investments capital and skilled labor for the region. It is expected to boost investments, job creation and incomes in the region. Nationals would be able to work anywhere in the region without a work permit.
China would, of course, be interested on how the Asean integration would benefit or impact on its rapidly booming economy.
Mr. You, who was here more as secretary general of China NGO Network for International Exchanges (CNIE) than as a Communist Party official, said he wanted to meet “old friends” on his first day in Manila before a string of meetings with current and former Philippine government officials.
By old friends, he meant The Manila Times editor in chief Neri Tenorio, Manila Bulletin entertainment editor Jojo Panaligan and me. Mr. You and CNIE hosted us one afternoon last December in Beijing, discussing various issues involving China and its neighbors in Southeast and South Asia.
CNIE Projects Director Du Xiaolin, Deputy Division Director Guo Yifeng, Project Assistant Isabella Tang, and Deputy Division Director Yang Nuo accompanied Mr. You during the visit. Chinese Embassy Third Secretary of the Political Section Wu Lin and China Harbor Engineering Co. Ltd. Assistant General Manager Zhang Donglou took the delegation around.
The issue about the maritime dispute was one of several topics we discussed. Mr. You said that he was aware that journalists are used to asking questions. He asked if he could turn the tables and be the one to throw a few questions.
He asked how the Filipinos and the media think about the Philippine-China relations. Neri, being the most authoritative and diplomatic person in our group, cited the long history of friendship between the two countries dating back to the Song Dynasty and that the relations between the two countries have always been anchored on that goodwill but never around conflicts.
Neri explained that most Filipinos support the Philippine government’s assertion of its claims over parts of the South China Sea as a matter of national sovereignty. A 2013 survey backs up Neri’s statement.
The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) commissioned a Social Weather Stations (SWS) survey in December 2013 to gauge people’s awareness about issues surrounding the Philippine-China dispute.
The survey showed that a big majority of the 1, 550 respondents —73 percent—were aware of the territorial dispute while the rest said they only heard about the dispute during the survey.
With the significant awareness level, 82 percent said that they agreed with the Philippine government’s move to elevate the dispute for resolution to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (Itlos), and 80 percent agreed that the government should ask help from other countries to keep China’s military actions in check.
A bigger chunk – 93 percent – said that they agreed that the country should defend its territory and natural resources in the West Philippine Sea “through lawful means.”
It was some kind of an awkward moment when you want to be gracious to visitors and, at the same time, speak about something that you know can put the visitor in a defensive situation.
I was reminded of an emotional exchange we had with Prof. Ding Yifan, a Chinese scholar with specialization on economics and trade, when we were in Beijing last December.
After giving a comprehensive briefing about China’s Maritime Silk Road and One Belt, One Road development strategies, I asked during the open forum about the logic behind giant China’s aggressive position in claiming the tiny islands that are obviously nearer the poor Philippine shores.
At one point, the professor raised his voice while articulating China’s position that it is all about a fight for dignity and integrity. He candidly admitted that the Philippine government’s adversarial position on the disputed islands in the West Philippine Sea could isolate it from the Silk Road’s navigational route.
This time with Mr. You, there was no raising of voice, no emotional outburst. “It was a matter of national dignity,” he said, echoing the Chinese government’s firm position against international arbitration.
The Philippines, he said, violated the Code of Conduct over the disputed territories when it raised the case to Itlos. As it rejects international arbitration on the dispute, China, he said, will not participate in that process.
In 2002, Asean members agreed with China to sign an informal code of conduct in the South China Sea to stop claimant states from occupying and constructing garrisons in the disputed Spratlys.
Well, we did not want to engage our visitors in a debate over who in our mind is violating the Code of Conduct, who is taking advantage of the situation and building structures that are sometimes even bigger than the reefs or islands, whose fishermen were intruding in whose territorial waters, and so on.
We had a very limited time, and at the outset, it was made clear to us that it was a “meeting of old friends.” Engaging them in a debate was not a good idea.
However, in a paper defending its position to the Philippine charges before the United Nations panel last year, the Chinese government outlined 93 points, reiterating that it holds sole sovereignty in the area and that the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea has no jurisdiction over territorial claims.
“China has indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea Islands and the adjacent waters,” the document stated. “It is the view of China that the Arbitral Tribunal manifestly has no jurisdiction over this arbitration, unilaterally initiated by the Philippines, with regard to disputes between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea.”
But instead of being preoccupied with the nagging questions about the disputed territories, Mr. You said his group is trying to explore ways where both the Philippines and China could focus for the development of both countries and the region.
“We should not be sidetracked by someone who would like to see us in dispute,” he said. According to him, part of his group’s mission is to look for “something we can do for the local people.”
Meantime, while the Philippine case over the disputed territory is pending before the UN panel, China appears to be building another structure on Mischief Reef, about 135 kilometers southeast of Palawan.
“We don’t know what they plan to do in Mischief,” Rear Admiral Alexander Lopez, commander of the Philippine military’s western command, said last week. “They have long been doing that, only that it was Fiery Cross that got a lot of attention because that was on a bigger scale.”
Lopez said dredging work on the island has been “substantial, ”but he could not say when it started. Reports said surveillance photos that were taken of Mischief Reef last October showed no reclamation work in the area.
The photos showed two structures, including a three-storey building sitting on an atoll, equipped with wind turbines and solar panels.
China occupied Mischief Reef in 1995, building makeshift huts, which Beijing claimed provided shelter for fishermen during the monsoon season. But, China later built a garrison in the area, deploying frigates and coast guard ships.
Also last week, the Philippine government reported that a Chinese coast guard ship had rammed three Philippine fishing boats in the disputed Scarborough Shoal area of the South China Sea the previous week.
The Philippines had protested the action. China’s Foreign Ministry, for its part, issued this statement: “After acquiring knowledge from the relevant departments, [we found]many Philippines fishing vessels illegally lingered in the shallow waters area surrounding the Scarborough Shoal on January 29 and they did not abide by the Chinese management. China’s coast guard sent a dinghy to drive them away according to the law and slightly bumped one of the fishing vessels.”
Media reports from Beijing quoted Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei as saying: “We ask that the Philippines strengthen education and indoctrination of its fishermen to prevent such incidents from happening again.”
Hong said that the Chinese ship that was sailing in the waters of the Scarborough Shoal was maintaining “normal order” to safeguard the waters in accordance with the law.
Obviously, the Philippines does not have the military muscle to thwart China, which has a defense budget 47 times larger than Manila’s. As a US treaty ally, the Philippines counts on US support in any potential conflict.
In the disputed Spratlys or Kalayaan group are a collection of more than 100 islands or reefs that dot the waters of the southern South China Sea, and have been at the center of sparring among the claimants for decades.
With both claimant countries asserting sovereignty, and invoking national dignity and integrity while accusing one another of being provocative and violative of the Code of Conduct, one wonders if there will ever be an end to this issue.
What is at stake is control over territorial waters rich in oil, gas, fish and other natural resources on critical maritime routes.