THE Philippines may be holding the upper hand now after getting a favorable ruling from the international arbitral tribunal but it needs to be careful on how to play its cards, former senator Leticia Ramos-Shahani said on Wednesday.
She advised the Duterte government to enlist the country’s allies to join the Philippines in pressuring China to stop its reclamation projects in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
“China is a big power, economically. Find our allies because we cannot do it alone,” Shahani said during a forum in Quezon City.
She warned that the United Nations is not a Supreme Court but a political body that promises to protect small nations but actually exists so that super powers will rule.
China, the former senator noted, is a permanent member of the UN Security Council.
“President [Rodrigo] Duterte’s first State visit should be in China and he should bring with him well-versed Chinese-speaking advisers. Before that meeting, he has to use all diplomatic channels, including backdoor negotiations,” said Shahani, who headed the foreign relations committee at the Senate.
De La Salle University political science professor Richard Javad Heydarian shared Shahani’s view, saying China is in a panic mode because it could be branded an international outlaw if it will insist on rejecting the tribunal’s ruling.
He said even if Beijing is a global maritime power, Duterte should issue a strongly-worded statement following the verdict.
“China will offer him a lot of carrots. He should stick to the game plan. Not relax our claim just because they’re investing a lot. Duterte has to be careful not to fall into that trap,” Heydarian added.
Shahani said just like in a poker game, Duterte is holding the winning card and he just has to be careful.
Her stand is also espoused by other political scientists, among them,
Prof. Aileen Baviera of the University of the Philippines Contemporary China Studies Asian Center, Prof. Jay Batongbacal of the UP College of Law Institute of Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea and former ABC Beijing bureau chief Chito Santa Romana, who was a guest on Tuesday at a forum held also in Quezon City.
Baviera said China is in a dilemma but the Chinese will never surrender their 9-dash-line policy.
“That mentality also is going to be very difficult for everyone to accept. China can insist on it and stand on that leg as long as it wants to,” she added.
Santa Romana said the Communist Party of China has been shaken by the ruling and the leadership is at its lowest point.
“They now have siege mentality, suspecting a Western conspiracy. They will cling to their belief that Mischief Reef is theirs legally. Watch carefully and use the [UN arbitral court] award to leverage,” he added.
Santa Romana cited border issues that China had with Vietnam and Russia that were settled after more than 30 years because the two governments did not go easy on Beijing.
“There were changes of leaders in Vietnam before the settlement was reached. It took Boris Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev to negotiate to solve the river border [issue]. Now, with Duterte, it is the most opportune time to settle the issue. China obviously did not like the Aquino administration,” he said.
Batongbacal said the issue of sovereignty remains undecided and the dispute with China will remain.
He added that the Philippines, however, should strive to enter into provisional practical arrangements like having common fishing grounds.
“China forces will remain on the disputed islands. Reclamation will continue. So the best is to reach some practical sharing,” Batongbacal said.
Other political scientists believe that China will not go to war even if other sea claimants will follow the Philippines’ lead and also file suits before the Permanent Court of Arbitration.
Prof. Rolando Simbulan of UP Manila said with the ruling, the Philippines should strike a balance in dealing with the US and China.
‘We now need to be very careful in striking a balance in dealing with the US and China because any wrong tip of that balance throws us into a position where we are caught in the middle and we become the battleground,” he added.
Senator Panfilo Lacson also on Wednesday said the Philippines can seek the UN’s help so that Filipinos can safely fish in certain areas in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
Lacson added that aside from holding bilateral talks with China, Manila can go to the UN General Assembly and ask if it could send a peacekeeping contingent to certain areas outside the 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone of the Philippines.
“We may opt to go directly to UN General Assembly and ask for their help. We can expect China to campaign against it. China won’t take it sitting down,” he said.
The senator believes that China will not dare harass a UN contingent.
“I don’t think China, for all its bravado, for all its military might, will drive away the UN peacekeeping force. Otherwise it will be going against the community of nations,” he said.
The senator expressed optimism that Manila and Beijing can reach an agreement.
“I have it on good information that they [China] are open to negotiate a sharing agreement. They are willing to put up capital,” Lacson said, adding that another source told him that China is even offering a 60-40 sharing arrangement.
The Philippines’ victory made Manila as mighty as Beijing and gave the Philippine government the edge when and if it will hold talks with China, Kabayan party-list Rep. Harry Roque, a former professor in International Law at the University of the Philippines, said also on Wednesday.
“This is a huge win for us because the UN tribunal specifically cited the West Philippine Sea features which are within our exclusive economic zone. This is important because under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, only a coastal state like the Philippines has the right to put up reclamation projects within its exclusive economic zone. This means that China’s existing reclamation projects and military bases there are unlawful,” Roque told reporters.
“This arbitration ruling made us a co-equal of China when it comes to bilateral talks. Before, it’s like having a gun to our heads when talking with them. Now, we have this leverage. The issues were narrowed down because the nine-dash line is out of it,” he said. “This ruling means that we will be free to benefit from fishing in our seas and even search for natural gas.”
WITH JEFFERSON ANTIPORDA AND LLANESCA T. PANTI