The case for restoring bilateral talks with China


The Philippines’ branding of China as a bully and attempt to maneuver the US into backing our claims has only inflamed China. The US will neither seize nor defend the Spratlys for us, and its position on the interpretation of the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) on this issue has been consistent since Kissinger’s interpretation in 1975. Indeed, the treaty was signed two decades before the Philippines first made its claim to the islands; therefore, in the eyes of the US, the Spratlys are not covered in the MDT as part of our sovereign territory and its official position on territorial disputes is neutral, as recently reaffirmed in the US State Department’s Limits in the Seas No. 143 publication.

Lack of bilateral engagement, unnecessarily provocative posturing of the Philippine President and increased military cooperation between the US and the Philippines gave Manila the opportunity to challenge China to prove its power in the Asia-Pacific region vis-à-vis Washington. But in so doing, Manila enabled Beijing to turn its row with the Philippines into a contest that it could win easily. Therefore, it is in the Philippines’ interest to defuse the US-China contest as it relates to the Spratlys and to tone down the nationalistic and aggressive rhetoric, in order to secure peace and maximal strategic dividends. Indeed, under the aggressive approach of President Aquino, Chinese expansion has accelerated, and Filipino fishermen have less access to fishing grounds and suffer increased harassment by Chinese warships.

Both Vietnam and the Philippines have entreated the US to counterbalance the rising power of China in the region, but only the Philippines has cut off bilateral talks. In fact, Vietnam and China undertook increased bilateral talks following the oil rig crisis in order to rebuild the cooperative relationship, though neither side refrains from officially criticizing the other’s actions.

The Philippines must restore high-level dialogue and bilateral talks with China, employing a combination of all levels of engagement, not merely an either/or position of bilateral talks or non-negotiation. This will not amount to a renunciation of our claims or an abandonment of our arbitration case, but, rather, recognition that China’s history shows the requirement of good relations between countries in order to effect border dispute settlements. As even Japan and Vietnam currently maintain high-level dialogue with China, the Philippines is maintaining an unnecessarily extreme position that is only making settlement impossible. Diplomacy and engagement is not an either/or situation of bilateral talks, non-engagement or multilateral engagement. Flexible, pragmatic and long-term foreign policy toward settlement of a dispute that will likely take several decades to complete will require multiple, parallel levels of engagement.

On this, China expert Chito Sta. Romana reminds that Vietnam negotiated for approximately 50 years and Russia for approximately 60 years in order to settle their border disputes with China, and that good political relations were a precondition toward achieving those final settlements. (See Sta. Romana’s interview with Rappler from June 8, 2015 for deeper discussion of these issues.) Even if the case before the ITLOS is decided in the Philippines’ favor and we win by demolishing China’s nine-dash line contention, that will only directly resolve the questions of Recto Bank and Scarborough Shoal, and the territorial dispute will continue on between the Philippines and China, Sta. Romana reminds. Therefore, it is necessary to begin a more realistic, sustained and multivalent dialogue to accompany a longer-term foreign policy vision for the Philippines in defense of our national interests.

On this, Ramses Amer questions the Philippines’ position in his March 2015 report on dispute management for the National Institute for the South China Sea Studies:

“It appears as though the two sides lack bilateral mechanisms to manage and defuse incidents causing tension. In other words, the two parties in practice do not have a dispute management framework or mechanism to implement with regard to their disputes in the South China Sea. Despite this apparent situation, the Philippines claims in its ‘Notification’ that it ‘has complied with the requirements of Article 279 and Article 283(1)’ of the UNCLOS ‘fully and in good faith, and has exhausted possibilities of settlement by negotiations.’ This raises the question how can ‘possibilities of settlement by negotiations’ have been ‘exhausted’ when the two parties involved have failed to even initiate bilateral mechanisms to manage incidents and related tension in recent years? After all, to reach any ‘settlement,’ parties to a dispute have to negotiate.”

Nicole Del Rosario CuUnjieng is a PhD Candidate in Southeast Asian and International History at Yale University.


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  1. Amnata Pundit on

    As I said in a previous response in your newspaper, it takes a lot of brains to survive when you are the ant caught between two colliding elephants, and the current yellow Edsa regime not only is not in possession of those brains, it is the American elephant in disguise!! It is easy to deal with the Chinese elephant as it is not unreasonable- unreasonable in terms of how geopolitical power conflicts are pragmatically played and not in terms of how things should be in an ideal world– since they are willing to share the bounties of these disputed islands with us while postponing the question of ownership in the meantime. But the yellow regime fronting for the American elephant will have none of these. The Americans want the Chinese to get out of those islands and to stop treating the South China Sea as a Chinese lake. Isn’t that like the Chinese telling the Americans to get out of Guam, Okinawa, The Philippines and stop treating the Pacific Ocean like an American lake? Only the fools believe that America is out to watch our back. The truth is that she is afraid of China’s rise as a superpower, and we are just her cannon fodder in this brewing conflict. To summarize, how to deal with two colliding elephants and not just one elephant is the real problem. Don’t you wish the Great Apo Marcos was the one in the saddle and not this moron?

  2. China annexes Philippine territory and Nicole wants to beg China to leave a few scraps. Does one say please when kow·tow·ing? Or does one simply kneel and touch the forehead to the ground in expression of submission, as is acceptable to the new Chinese masters? It appears that a PhD Candidate in Southeast Asian and International History at Yale University must incorporate post modern humanist progressive socialism/communism ideology when engaged in pontification. The closed minds of US Ivy league universities always side for communism. Another mindless cookie cutter PhD graduate who simply parrots the politically correct progressive socialist agenda.

  3. Lito Yap David on

    This sums up how we should deal with China as regards the South China/West Philippine Sea dispute. We are likely to gain more through rational bilateral discussions than by “internationalizing” the issue. We have so much in common with China historically and by affinity which the other party knows very well and would certainly a good starting point in renewing our injured relations. The next dispensation would do well to resort to this mode and learn much on “how to unfriend a good friend” employed by the Aquino administration.

  4. Mariano Patalinjug on

    Yonkers, New York
    05 July 2015

    In this lengthy Commentary, “The case for restoring bilateral talks with China,” in The Manila Times of 05 July, NICOLE CUUNJIENG sounds like she is a spokeswoman for the Chinese Embassy in Manila or the spokeswoman of Chinese President Xi Jinping.

    She makes a good case for “restoring bilateral talks with China,” and completely forgets about pursuing the territorial-dispute case which the Philippines, a law-abiding and member in good standing of the United Nations, has brought against China before the UN Permanent Arbitral Tribunal on the Law of the Seas [ITLOS].

    Even as these lines are written, reports have it that the PERMANENT COURT OF ARBITRATION has scheduled Oral Hearings on this RP-China dispute starting tomorrow [06 July] and ending 9 days later on 14 July at the Peace Palace in The Hague, the Netherlands.

    he Philippines is represented by Solicitor General Florin Hilbay along with International Lawyer Paul Reichler.

    With the high-powered delegation to the Peace Palace in The Hague will be Secretary of Foreign Affairs Albert del Rosario; Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa; Justice Secretary Leila de Lima; Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin; Undersecretary Abigail Valte; Undersecretary Emmanuel Bautista; Supreme Court justices Antonio Carpio and Francis Jardeleza; Sandiganbayan justice Sarah Jane Fernandez; Senate President Frankln Driloln ; andSpeaker Sonny Belmonte.

    It should be plain to see that the high and mighty of Philippine officialdom is irretrievably committed to ARBITRATION of the RP-China territorial dispute–which is the civilized way of resolving such disputes.

    It is rather late in the day to be pushing for “restoring bilateral talks” with China. It happens that such bilateral talks, even only as a remote possibility, would be seriously disadvantageous to the Philippines: It would be akin, metaphorically, to a Chihuahua [the Philippines] talking to an 800-pound gorilla [China}.


  5. Nicole, Don’t be naïve. PH is brave enough to cut off bilateral talk with China.
    Thanks to our allies US, Japan, South Korea and ANZUS. It’s about time for our leaders to “grab the bull by the horn”. China’s leaders are bully! It will never stop from intimidating the countries surrounding it. Not in my wildest dream. The illegal occupation of Scarborough and Spratly Islands is the more reason that our country should not have bilateral talk. Why would you talk to a rapist? We can all talk about the risks and opportunities in the arbitration. But it is a wise move on the part of our government to file arbitration case against China. I really don’t care if this will enraged China’s leaders. If China is not stop now it will only become worst for all the peace loving nations of the world. The claimed on the Spratly Islands and the 9 dash lines in the West Philippine Sea is a proof that China is becoming bolder and is now challenging the US and its allies militarily. of course the situation is complicated by Russia engaged in dispute with Europe aligned with Ukraine.

  6. Nicole, Don’t be naïve. China’s claimed of the Spratly Islands and the infamous 9 dash line is not only a challenge to PH but more significantly to the US pacific fleet, Japan, Korea and Asean. China has claimed lands surrounding their country. History repeats itself. You have to go back to the Qin Dynasty to understand the mind set of the ruling CPC. I have been in many cities in China to visit various vendors for our offshore structures in the oil and gas industry and to my surprise even the local Chinese are against China’s politburo claiming lands 1000 miles form their nearest land. China will not stop claiming lands and islands even after bilateral talks. Not in my wildest dream. The only way to stop is to fight the Chinese. I have Chinese blood but I hate the leaders of the CPC who are greedy and will do anything to report to the world that they are the second largest economy. You know as well as I do that China do a lot of illegal businesses. They are hated in Europe, Asia and America because of these illegal businesses and taking the livelihood of the locals. In China, there are millions of Chinese that are still below poverty and are suppressing the ordinary Chinese living in the rural areas, small towns and cities i.e Hefei, Nanchang, Nanning, Changsha, Kumming, etc.. The lights and infrastructures that you see in CCTV are government sponsor ad to attract investors and tourism. You and me are one of the many Chinese in PH who are enjoying real democracy. Let’s be real. If China is not stopped there will be world war III. You should know by now how much money are they spending in military to move ahead of the US and its allies. Japan will not allow this and so is the US. The only option for PH is to align ourselves with the US, Japan and ANZUS.

    • smart talk! too late for the enlightenment! tourism been destroy, transfer of mining technology gone, but the CHING still getting the black sand from the NORTH. only the well read realized we been fool by p-noy and the USA. surprise is only Manila Time dare to expose the truth. did China embassy pay good will money to write, anyway, I believe in your truth write up!