At the recent World Economic Forum on East Asia held here, Admiral Samuel Locklear, the commander of the US Pacific Fleet, warned against a “winner-take-all attitude” on the territorial disputes in the West Philippine Sea/South China Sea.
Many believed that Locklear aimed his warning at China that has been aggressively pursuing its claims in the disputed islets, atolls, shoals and reefs in the area. However, this should also apply to other claimants to the disputed area, including the Philippines. Our government has been saying that “what is ours is ours.” In other words, we should never allow other claimants to trespass into our territory. National pride and our sovereignty demand it. The sovereignty issue could be resolved only if other claimant-countries agree that we own what we believe is ours. But, as Locklear had stressed, this tack would never solve the row in the West Philippine Sea. He proposed dialogues and compromises to ease the tension in the area.
Rep. Gina “Manay Gina” de Venecia of Pangasinan, also the president of the Association of Women Legislators, amplified on this proposal in a privilege speech last Monday. She said that the Philippines and China should consider the suggestion of Deng Xiaoping, who launched China’s economic modernization, to shelve or postpone the issue of sovereignty for a later time.
She added that the two countries should consider an agreement “to explore and develop in partnership the areas they claim competitively and let mutual benefit and equitable profits of oil and gas production ease the dangerous nationalist fervor the rival claims have raised.”
I’ve heard two senators say almost the same thing years ago. In 2011, a year before the Chinese intrusion into the Kalayaan Island Group, Sen. Gringo Honasan said that the Philippines should define the national interest in pursuing its claims to the disputed islets, whether it is ownership or use.
Senator Gringo said then that the “normal trajectory” at the Spratly Islands is joint exploration and joint use—“unless we are prepared to fight, and I know we are not.” A former military officer, Gringo doubted if our Navy and Air Force could last more than two hours in the sea and air against any foreign aggressor.
Sen. Ralph Recto has also gone on record as saying that every confrontation in the disputed islands results in the escalation of tension “with nobody getting anything.” He believes that the government could pursue a possible joint exploration without impinging on Philippine sovereignty. He recalled that the Philippines had tapped foreign oil companies to jointly explore the Malampaya natural gas deposits off Palawan without forsaking its sovereignty.
“I’m not saying that we backtrack from our claim. In fact, we should pursue it relentlessly. But while the natural finds of Spratlys lay underneath, idle and untapped, a joint exploration appears to be the more logical engagement with China,” Senator Ralph said.
Now, Manay Gina is adding her voice to the call for joint exploration and use. Oh yes, she’s actually echoing the proposals of her husband, former Speaker Joe de Venecia years back when he had warned that the opposing claims in the WPS/South China Sea posed a potential powder keg in the region.
She noted that as early as 1974 and 1987, JDV proposed the demilitarization of the disputed islets, a joint oil-and–gas drilling program, and equitable sharing of the profits of production to reduce Philippine dependence on foreign oil.
As regards the problem of fishing in the disputed areas, Manay Gina suggested the designation of “fishing corridors” and perhaps alternating periods for fishing fleets from the three “frontline states” of the Philippines, China and Vietnam to avoid further tensions, confrontation, and arrest, of fishermen in the sea.
She made these same proposals during a 10-day inter-parliamentary visit to China that had the blessings of Speaker Sonny Belmonte.
Former Ambassador Ma Keqing once said in a roundtable with the Manila Times that China can separate the issues of sovereignty and of use of the contested area.
“We can undertake joint exploration without surrendering our respective claims of sovereignty,” she said.
So much water has passed under the bridge since then and I wonder if China still holds the same position. It has taken a more aggressive stance, causing anti-Chinese riots in Vietnam. Meanwhile, the Philippines has signed the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement with the United States, and is seeking international arbitration over the conflicting claims in the WPS. Chinese officials said these twin moves had brought relations between the two countries to a new low.
Nevertheless, Manay Gina is confident that the tension between the two countries could still be eased, and that their centuries-old friendship would remain strong.