SIX readers positively responded to my question in a previous piece as to why we rejected China’s invitation to bilateral talks on the WPS/SCS issue and instead decided to bring the matter to an UNCLOS arbitral process. Since their names do not belong to the known circle of learned commentators in government, think tanks and the academe, it can be presumed that they are ordinary citizens: the ones that represent the majority of the Filipino people.
Evidently, there is reason to seriously examine and consider China’s offer. It is the other road towards a peaceful settlement of the maritime problem.
It will not be easy. We must clearly and strongly state our stand. President Aquino’s declaration that “what is ours is ours” is the correct and important first step. Unfortunately the President missed, and the government officials concerned never followed up, to individually identify those rocks, reefs and islands. Panatag, Recto, Ayungin and the KIG among others, should have been specifically named as belonging to the Philippines.
The “ours” position if consistently and firmly stated would have placed us in a position of strength when the actual negotiations take place. Using the term “claim or claimant” weakens the power and authority of our stand. One should not claim what already is his. Any country that will claim as theirs what are ours deserve to be called bullies, grabbers or squatters.
Direct talks with China will have distinct advantages but bilaterals do not have to be one on one affairs. Proven effective is the appointment of a facilitator or mediator the role of which can be defined in the terms and conditions to be agreed upon by the principals. For this crucial role, the UN or EU or a country like India, Brazil or Norway which has tested experience on the matter might be willing to help.
Friendly bilateral talks between the Philippines and China offer many other opportunities. Already they agree on pacific settlement of disputes, freedom of navigation, safety at sea and joint ventures. The Chinese national oil company is reported to be partnering with a Philippine firm in the exploration and development of mineral deposits in the Recto Bank.
Of course bilaterals like any other negotiations can collapse and therefore fail to produce a settlement. But in this mode of resolving disputes the possibility of finding reasonable compromise agreements is more easily achievable.
The call for joint activities has expanded to talks about agreements on fisheries and disaster assistance. Benefits from this favorable atmosphere can be maximized if the sensitive issue about national sovereignty is set aside. Since the idea of a supranational authority succeerded in western Europe, a version of it that will meet Asia’s or Philippine/China’s peculiar situation could be possible. Such a regime can directly serve not only the economic but also the vital political and security interests of the two countries.
For sure going to the UNCLOS arbitral process is not a wrong move. But one wonders whether we picked the right time to file the application and whether prior consultations with the other concerned Asean countries were undertaken. Would it not have been wiser if we had first agreed to friendly bilaterals with China with the idea in mind that if the talks fail, we would invite them to an arbitral process? China proposed bilateral negotiations. She must be serious about wanting to forge a fair and acceptable settlement. And if the official talks falter, there is the possibility of compromise agreement, something that may not be expected in arbitral proceedings. In bilaterals, diplomats negotiate and leave room for compromise, in arbitration, lawyers argue and argue to win.
According to reports we ignored China’s invitation to direct talks because our government views it as a divide and rule tactic, designed to destroy the supposed united stand agreed upon by the Asean states on the matter. When we decided to take the arbitraton route did we first secure the opinion and support of our Asean friends? After all any decision that will come out of it, especially on the 9-dash line, [we seem so confident about winning]will definitely benefit them also. So far no public statement of full support has been heard from any of them. What they have done was to tactfully safeguard their friendly ties with China leaving the Philippines as the only Asean country that is the object of Chinese ire and hostility.
Records show that arbitral proceedings in the UNCLOS have produced favorable results. Indeed the cases between Barbados and Trinidad/Tobago in 2006 and the other between Guyana and Suriname in 2007 were successfully resolved. These neighbors willingly yielded to the jurisdiction of the UNCLOS Tribunal and mutually agreed to honor and accept whatever decision the arbitrators would reach.
Our case with China cannot be compared.
The diplomatic road not taken by the Philippines towards a peaceful settlement of our maritime issue with China deserves a second and harder look.
Amb. Montesa is a member of the Board of Governors of the Philippine Ambassadors’ Foundation Inc. (PAFI) but the views in this piece are entirely his. He was envoy to the European Union, Belgium, Luxembourg and Mexico and is now an active member of the Rotary Club of Alabang.