HAVING worked with President Fidel V. Ramos in the past as an adviser, I have written this column in the form of a memo to assist him in the coming talks with China on the South China Sea—to which President Duterte has named him as the Philippines’ special envoy.
After a brief impasse, wherein both China and the Philippines issued statements that appeared to close the door to negotiations (Beijing said there could be no talks if the Philippines brings the ruling of the UN Permanent Court of Arbitration to the table; Manila declared that the ruling will be central to any talks between the two governments), talks are again a high priority to both Manila and Beijing.
New impetus for talks
In Vientiane (the Laos capital), site of the annual summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi asked US Secretary of State John Kerry to support the resumption of talks between China and the Philippines over the South China Sea.
In a statement on Tuesday, Kerry said the Philippines and China should “turn the page” and hold talks over contested areas of the South China Sea after a tribunal shot down Beijing’s claims to the strategic waterway.
Alluding to the request of Wang Yi, Kerry said in his statement: “The foreign minister said very clearly the time has come to move away from public tensions and turn the page.”
“And we agree that no claimant should be acting in a way that is provocative, no claimant should take steps that wind up raising tensions,” he said.
“I would encourage President Duterte to engage in dialogue, in negotiations,” Kerry told reporters in Laos.
From Vientiane, Kerry flew to Manila for talks with Duterte yesterday.
For a subject that is clearly the top foreign-policy challenge of his administration, Duterte surprisingly allotted only one innocuous sentence to the sea dispute in his state-of-the-nation address on Monday.
At the emergency meeting of the Nation al Security Council (NSC) yesterday, (which Ramos no doubt attended, being a member as a former President), the sea dispute and the forthcoming talks with China undoubtedly got more than one sentence or one minute in the discussions.
I expect the meeting with Kerry and the NSC meeting has opened Duterte’s mind to the high importance of the proposed negotiations and Ramos’ mission.
In dealing with China on the sea dispute, I expect that our government will hammer out quickly our negotiating position for the talks.
President Ramos is experienced in managing this kind of activity.
We will not play down but rather highlight our ace in the hole in the negotiations: the ruling of the Court of Arbitration that China’s claim to all of the South China Sea has no basis in international law.
We have to be firm about the rights of our fishermen to fish in the waters, which China still insists on blocking.
We are open to the possibility of joint exploration and development of resources that may be found in the disputed waters.
Beijing’s initial reaction to the ruling was apoplectic and uncompromising. The inflexibility has since moderated. Its call for talks and request for US assistance reflects a cooling down of tempers and suggests the possibility of change in China’s claims in the SCS.
Economist on China’s diplomatic hole
An article and analysis by the Economist in its July 23 issue suggests an explanation of why President Xi Jinping may be changing tack.
I will quote the article at length here:
“CHINA is smarting. A tribunal in The Hague ruled on July 12th that its claims to most of the South China Sea had no basis in international law. In the days since, China’s government has shown no sign of wanting to dig itself out of a diplomatic hole—or any sign that it thinks it is in one.
“Officials had two opportunities to be emollient and passed them both up. The first came when discussing bilateral talks with the Philippines, which had brought the case. Before the verdict the Philippines’ new president, Rodrigo Duterte, had said ‘let’s talk.’ But according to his foreign minister, Perfecto Yasay, China demanded the talks take place without reference to the tribunal’s ruling. When Mr Yasay said no, the Chinese side muttered that ‘we might be headed for a confrontation.’ China also continued to block Philippine fishermen from their traditional grounds.
“The other chance to step back came during a visit to Beijing by the chief of America’s navy, Admiral John Richardson. His opposite number, Wu Shengli, did not miss the opportunity to miss an opportunity. ‘We will never stop our construction on the Nansha [Spratly] islands half way, no matter what country or person applies pressure,’ he said, referring to China’s controversial building of harbours and runways on disputed outcrops in the South China Sea. At least they were talking….
“Two things are clear. One is that stubborn nationalism is a strong feature of China’s foreign policy. The other is that Xi Jinping—China’s president, Communist Party leader and commander-in-chief—is determined to control it, just he is to dominate all aspects of China’s politics. State media have dismissed the tribunal as an American puppet, but Mr Xi does not want anti-US fervour to disrupt his diplomacy. China’s navy is still taking part in biennial naval drills called RIMPAC, hosted by America and joined by more than 20 other countries, that are under way off Hawaii. It appears to relish the prestige.
“After the verdict, China’s social media started to call on people to boycott bananas from the Philippines and American brands such as iPhones and KFC, a fast-food chain. But the last thing Mr Xi wants are public demonstrations. (In the past century, patriotic protests have had a habit of turning against the government in China.) So this week, Xinhua and People’s Daily, a party newspaper, started criticising the “irrational patriotism” of social media. A picture that circulated on social media of a protest outside a KFC outlet was deleted by censors. If there is one thing more important than Chinese nationalism, it seems, it is party control.”
Seeking the truth from the facts
In her book Statecraft (Harper Collins, 2002), Margaret Thatcher has an insightful chapter on China that will be useful for our team in the coming negotiations.
Thatcher makes this observation about Chinese public statements: “The Chinese never mince words in their own public statements, but they expect everyone else to do so.”
Beijing did not mince words in its reaction to the arbitral ruling. The vituperation toward us and our friends was berserk. The verdict was a farce. The US fixed it. We are a lackey of the US. And so on.
Conversely, the incoming Duterte administration was already mincing its words even before The Hague award was announced. DU30 cautioned Filipinos not to flaunt or gloat over the ruling, if it is favorable.
Thatcher’s advice about such vituperative language is blunt: do not kowtow to them.
Finally, she shares this gem. She reports that Deng Xiaoping had an expression—“seeking truth from the facts” that can be useful in dealing with China.
Chinese leaders have gradually come to recognize the connection between the two—the truth and the facts—as they have sought to enjoy the benefits of capitalism. They are starting to see the importance of the rule of law.
The goal then is to persuade China to seek the truth from the facts in the South China Sea.