From President Rodrigo Duterte’s revelations on his talks with top Chinese officials during his recent visit to Beijing, it is reassuring for the nation to know that contrary to what many feared, the President clearly put forward our country’s position and concerns.
First, he asked the Chinese government to stop its fishermen from fishing in the disputed Panatag (Scarborough Shoal), on the grounds that the shoal falls within our country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
To this he drew the response that the Chinese government has told its fishermen to leave the contested area.
The President has asked our people to wait just a few more days and they could return to fishing in Scarborough.
Second, Duterte cited the July 12 ruling of the United Nations arbitral tribunal at The Hague, as our country’s main argument for asserting sovereign rights over the shoal.
To this, the Chinese officials were quick to answer that China has historic rights over the shoal.
This sounded like a showstopper in reflecting a clear clash of positions, but Duterte showed deftness in steering the discussion toward areas where there can be common ground or agreement.
He veered toward the importance of each country having a good food supply. He said: “It behooves upon us not to gamble on the fishing ground because otherwise, it would create imbalance in our food supply. They told me they also told the Chinese fishermen to leave, but I don’t know if they will keep their word.”
The President disclosed that China vowed to boost the Philippines’ agricultural sector through affordable financing schemes for farmers.
The scheme, Duterte said, would spur the revival of the policies of the late President Ferdinand Marcos dubbed as Masagana 99, which promoted high-yield crops, and Biyaya ng Dagat, which granted aid to fishermen.
“I will bring back Biyaya ng Dagat and Masagana 99. I will copy it. Marcos was very bright, he knew what to do. The agriculture sector will get one of the biggest budgets under this government,” Duterte said.
The President recognizes that his friendly stance toward China is not enough to make Beijing accept its bitter defeat before the UN-backed tribunal anytime soon.
“They said they own the island historically, and I said to them we won’t back down from there because we won the case in the UN Court. But I won’t pick up a fight. The solution is not to kill each other. We can resolve this case peacefully, someday. We will continue to talk,” Duterte said.
“One day, in the future, we will really talk about the UN ruling. We can’t leave it hanging. And when we do, we won’t go out of that document. But I will not insist now; I will not impose now; I will not go to war now,” the President said.
This is a wise and commendable tack to follow. It calls to mind the thinking of the venerable Deng Xiaoping in handling the thorny Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu islands to China) dispute between China and Japan.
In 1972, when diplomatic relations between China and Japan were established, Deng served as chief negotiator for the Chinese government. The two countries found reasons to defer resolution of the territorial dispute.
Deng Xiaoping at the time expressed the following view: “It does not matter if this question is shelved for some time, say, 10 years. Our generation is not wise enough to find common language on this question. Our next generation will certainly be wiser. They will certainly find a solution acceptable to all.”
President Duterte’s decision to forbear from insisting on an immediate solution to the South China Sea question echoes Deng’s confidence in the ability of future generations to find a solution acceptable to all.