THE journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
This saying from ancient China seems to have found resonance again today, confirming the well-deserved reputation of its author Lao Tzu (Laozi) as a major figure not only in Chinese but also world philosophy.
The journey toward a peaceful and productive resolution of a festering conflict in the South China Sea (West Philippine Sea) will be taken by China and the Philippines as they begin next week bilateral talks on the maritime row over territories where one-third of world shipping passes through.
“The first session will really cover the terms of reference and the basic [issue]. Try to draw an agenda so the first session will be the long step in the long journey… What it provides is a platform, a mechanism to bring out the issue,” Philippine Ambassador to China Jose Santiago “Chito” Santa Romana told a news conference in Beijing on Saturday last week.
Santa Romana said Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Philippine counterpart Rodrigo Duterte will not take part in the initial stage of the dialogue, an inhibition that apparently is intended to make discussions more free-wheeling, which is unlikely to happen if the two leaders are around.
That the conciliatory talks would be held after relations between Manila and Beijing soured last year over a ruling by an international arbitral court that rejected China’s sweeping claim to the entire South China Sea is already a significant departure from past belligerent stances of the two protagonists.
President Duterte himself played to the gallery upon his assumption of the Philippine presidency in June last year, saying the country’s sovereignty would not be threatened even by emerging superpower China and a few other statements straight from the O.K. Corral.
But what a difference six months make, with the President appearing to be learning the diplomatic ropes in dealing with the inscrutable Chinese, as well as with the United States, Russia and even warmongering North Korea.
Presumably, Manila agreed to the bilateral talks with Beijing without prejudice to other territorial claims to the South China Sea by Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan.
If that were the case, then tensions, also particularly between China and Vietnam, will have been defused as they had been between China and the Philippines, who were more outspoken and confrontational about their issues in the South China Sea.
The peace, although still uneasy, resulting from the proverbial cooling of heads would augur well for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), which has seemed to side with the Chinese position that multilateral talks would not resolve the maritime dispute in both the short and the long terms.
With Asean leaning on consensus as an economic and political bloc, whatever comes out of the bilateral talks in southwestern China could expect smooth sailing in the regional body, also partly because President Duterte is the chairman of the 2017 Asean meetings.
Member states, 10 of them, including the Philippines, could also be expected to toe the Duterte line to please China, a generous aid donor and investor in many of the Asean countries.
The bilateral talks have not even started yet but the President seems ready to take on another journey.
Upon arrival on Tuesday from his visit to China, he said he is open to exploration and development in the South China Sea with rival claimants China and Vietnam as long as it is “fair” to the Philippines.
“If we can get something there with no hassle at all, so why not?” the President added, citing a joint exploration agreement that then-President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo struck with Beijing and Hanoi.
He said he expects a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea to emerge from the bilateral dialogue “because that is what the Asean… and maybe also the Americas and everybody” want.
The President seemed to show that he is a practical leader, saying, “We avoid violence and we avoid war because frankly we cannot afford it and China cannot afford it also at this time. Masisira tayong dalawa [We will both be destroyed].”
Besides, he added, the Chinese are “sincere.”