BY ESTEBAN G. PEÑA SY
CERTAIN politicians, jurists, journalists and scholars are very critical about President Rodrigo Duterte’s policy in our territorial dispute with China over the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea). These critics are particularly unhappy that Duterte did not mention the Permanent Court of Arbitration decision that we won when he met with the Chinese leaders during his state visit to Beijing in October last year. They also criticize the Duterte administration for not including the South China Sea territorial dispute in the agenda of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) summit meetings this year in which the Philippines could use to its advantage its position as chair of this year’s conference.
By the same logic, these politicians, jurists, journalists and scholars highly praise former President Noynoy Aquino and former Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario for being “champions in protecting Philippine sovereignty over the West Philippine Sea”. Aquino and Del Rosario are cited for challenging China’s claim of sovereignty over the whole South China Sea in the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague, and winning a decision in favor of the Philippines. A very patriotic and learned friend told me in an email: “I do not like Noynoy and Del Rosario on many issues, but I credit them for getting the arbitral tribunal decision in favor of the Philippines”.
On the surface, we cannot disagree with the interpretation of events by these politicians, scholars and journalists. However, if we analyze more deeply, we will see the irony of the facts. The reality is that Aquino and his foreign secretary caused the Philippines to lose sovereignty over the West Philippine Sea, while Duterte has successfully won back our sovereignty with his political wisdom.
The territorial and sovereignty dispute over the islets and shoals in the South China Sea has existed among China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan and the Philippines for decades already. However, it is a fact that in the past 40 years, Vietnam had reclaimed more than a dozen islands in the Spratlys while the Philippines also made some land reclamations and built an airstrip in the Pag-asa islands. But it is interesting to note that before 2013, China did not reclaim any land in the whole South China Sea region. Another interesting fact is that over the past decades, the Philippine Navy and Coast Guards had arrested hundreds of Chinese fishing boats and jailed thousands of Chinese fishermen for poaching in the South China Sea area, but there was never a single Philippine fishing boat or any Filipino fisherman apprehended by the Chinese authorities. In essence, the Philippines had been exercising full sovereignty over the South China Sea in all those years. China had occasionally made protests but no action was taken to undermine Philippine sovereignty.
This situation completely changed when Aquino decided to rename part of the South China Sea as the West Philippine Sea. The Aquino administration refused to have any dialogue with Beijing, and China considered the Philippine government extremely unfriendly. Beijing started to dispatch ocean surveillance vessels to patrol the area which led to the confrontation in Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal in April 2012. When Aquino and Del Rosario decided to challenge China in the Hague tribunal, Chinese Coast Guards started blocking Filipino fishermen from fishing in the Panatag Shoal. After the Aquino administration solicited support from the United States and Japan to confront the Chinese, and when joint military exercises were staged by US and Filipino soldiers near the disputed South China Sea area, China started in 2013 big-scale reclamation to enlarge the islands under its control.
By igniting the fire of dispute and provoking the Chinese, Aquino and Del Rosario caused the Philippines to lose sovereignty over the West Philippine Sea, including the Panatag fishing grounds. Undeniably, renaming the West Philippine Sea and challenging China in the arbitral tribunal are just like cosmetic surgeries; they may make the appearance nice but can become hazardous to health. After these maneuvers, our poor fishermen could not go to the resource-rich Panatag Shoal for fishing, and China reclaimed so much land in the disputed areas and even built permanent structures on these reclaimed islands. In reality, the Philippines had lost territorial sovereignty due to our politicians’ ingenuity.
Apparently, Duterte has far better political wisdom in handling difficult situations. He seems to understand the mentality of the Chinese leaders and knows how to deal with them in order to achieve victory for ourselves. Duterte chose to approach Beijing with conversation instead of confrontation. The Chinese leaders reciprocated with an attitude of mutual respect. As a result, Duterte was able to win dignity and pride for our people and our nation. After his state visit to China, Filipino fishermen can now go back to the Panatag fishing grounds without any fear of harassment from any foreign force. China has suspended further reclamation in the South China Sea. In effect, Duterte has gained back Philippine sovereignty over Panatag Shoal and the West Philippine Sea which had been lost by the Aquino administration.
To achieve successful results in any diplomatic dealings, we should have a full understanding of our opponents. As I pointed out in an earlier article (“Understand the Chinese before talking to them,” Manila Times, October 15, 2016), the Chinese observe the “love begets love and hatred begets hatred” doctrine. The Beijing leadership abides by Mao Zedong’s teaching that “we will not offend others if we are not offended, but we will definitely retaliate when we are offended”. This political philosophy has been put into practice by the Chinese leadership in past decades, as shown in the history of the People’s Republic of China since its inception. China has showered many African and Southeast Asian countries with tremendous economic assistance in friendship and mutual respect. In recent years, the Chinese retaliated vigorously when they felt offended in the East China Sea and the South China Sea.
No one would question President Aquino’s good intentions and devoted efforts in fighting for Philippine sovereignty. However, his endeavors ended disastrously. On the other hand, the Duterte administration takes a low-key approach in fighting for our sovereignty. Some critics even label Duterte “defeatist”. But in effect, Duterte has won back sovereignty for the Filipino people. The Aquino administration did not understand the thinking of the Chinese and thus used wrong approaches and erroneous tactics in handling the crisis. Aquino and Del Rosario thought that by bringing the Americans and Japanese to our side, Beijing would bow to the pressure. But the result was to the contrary. Duterte is far more suave in his diplomacy. By advocating mutual respect, he was able to establish a friendly relationship with the “supposed-to-be enemy”. He not only regained sovereignty for the Philippines, he also obtained commitments and actions from China to enhance investment and trade development of the country. Critics should stop accusing President Duterte of being “defeatist”. In fact, his political wisdom and diplomatic achievement deserve high respect and full support from the Filipino people.
Esteban G. Peña Sy is a businessman with a special interest in China Studies which he specialized in as an Asian Studies major at the University of the Philippines. He was a lecturer at the UP before joining the corporate sector.