LAST Friday, People’s Republic of China Ambassador to the Philippines Zhao Jianhua delivered a message which he and his government surely hoped would help to cool the rapidly rising tensions over China’s activities in the West Philippine Sea.
Without preconditions, he said, and without asking Manila to drop its arbitration case against China before a UN tribunal, Beijing would like to resume bilateral discussions with the Philippines in order to reach an amicable agreement on the control and access of the disputed area.
Zhao stressed the deep cultural and economic ties between the two nations, and explained that the reclamation work being hastily carried out by China was not intended to antagonize the Philippines or anyone else. He said it was simply an initiative to improve China’s security, and would provide facilities that could be shared with other countries.
The issue has taken on more international prominence with tough statements from US President Barack Obama within the past few days calling on China to halt its reclamation activity, and comments from several sources stating that the dispute would be part of the agenda of the G7 summit in Germany. The Philippines, of course, has always maintained that the issue involves more than one country, and should be resolved through international agreement, such as a proposed Code of Conduct of the sea.
We stand squarely in support of our government’s position on China’s encroachment on territory that rightly belongs to the Philippines under international law. Pursuing the matter before the UN in the manner prescribed by international law is the correct course of action for the Philippines. China’s refusal to participate in the legal process is its right under the same laws, the honorable Ambassador pointed out, but we must point out that it is a right that China assigned to itself, simply by refusing to accept or acknowledge certain provisions of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Nevertheless, we believe there is merit to the perspective offered by Ambassador Zhao that the dispute over the West Philippine Sea ought to be regarded as a disagreement between friends. A very serious disagreement, certainly, and one that could potentially end that friendship, but one that we must believe does not have to inevitably result in tragedy.
China is a valuable friend and economic partner, and it is not an exaggeration to say that the Philippines would be a much diminished society without the contributions of Chinese people, culture, and resources.
No one can oblige the Philippines to sacrifice its sovereignty or self-respect. By the same token, we cannot oblige others such as the United States or our partners in Asean to rush to our defense. China has offered an opportunity to move the dispute between our two nations closer to a resolution, and that offer, while it should be considered with sobriety and caution, certainly should not be rejected out of hand by our government.
Consider this: by offering to restart bilateral discussions, China has placed the Philippines in a delicate position. If we refuse the invitation, we will be seen as not doing all we can to resolve the dispute peacefully. Any support we gain as a result of a favorable ruling from the UN or through other means will be support to aggression on our part, and in fact, our stubbornness may only lead us to become caught in the middle of a wider conflict between the waning superpower of the West and the rising one in the East.
As China by way of the message delivered by Ambassador Zhao has offered assurances that no preconditions, not even a suspension of the UN case, are necessary before engaging in discussions, we should accept their offer to do so. Though talks in the past have not accomplished anything as far as any compromise on the conflicting claims is concerned, the mere willingness to sit down again at the negotiating table should cool the air of mistrust, arrogance and aggression and create a fresh environment of goodwill in approaching an amicable solution to the dispute.
That should also give the Philippines a new moral standing to be able to say it has given peace another chance in resolving the South China Sea issue. There is too much at stake for the Philippines, the region, and in some sense, the entire world not to make the attempt.