THE Philippines-China talks in May 2017 place the Philippines at a vital cross-road to war or peace. The choice of which road to take all depends on what strategy the Philippine negotiating team will adapt. A “win-lose strategy,” otherwise known as a “zero-sum game” will lead the Philippines to war; and end up with zero benefits: zero oil, zero gas, and zero fish, in addition to angering a neighbor that is now the largest economy in the world in terms purchasing power parity. The other road, which is a “win-win strategy,” will lead the Philippines to peace and progress. It involves settling the issue of sovereignty acceptable to both parties, and ensures that the core interests of both are addressed and satisfied.
We have had a taste of a “win-lose strategy” when we unanimously won our case at the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at The Hague. It was a total win for the Philippines and a total loss for China. But this victory will eventually end up as a “zero-sum” game for us because China will make sure that we do not get a single drop of oil, a single cubic foot of gas, or even a single piece of fish from the disputed area. What we got instead are China’s fully armed strategic bombers patrolling Scarborough Shaol and other Chinese-occupied islands in the disputed area. What if China, in revenge for what we have done, start occupying all the islands claimed by the Philippines? Will the US come to our aid and die for us? This is the dilemma we now face as a result of the “win-lose strategy” of the previous administration.
It may be timely to contemplate the right strategy to adopt in the forthcoming talks. The initial choice of our negotiating team is critical. If the President chooses negotiators who are inherently or historically hostile to China, then expect that our team will pursue a “win-lose strategy”. If President Duterte really does not want war as he has declared in the past, then he should make sure that each team member is not a warmonger, does not harbor innate hostility against the other party, and has the interest of the nation at heart, and is not a willing pawn of foreign interests. The wrong choice may mean the difference between war and peace.
But before real win-win negotiation can begin, the highly contentious issue of sovereignty must be settled. The Philippines claims sovereignty based on legality, especially the recent PCA decision. China claims sovereignty based on history; that they discovered those islands in 1279 and gave them those names. Both sides have their points, but never the twain shall meet – even if they negotiate for a thousand years! Hence, better for both sides to set aside the sovereignty issue for the time being, making clear that each is not abandoning their territorial claims. Once both sides agree on the issue of sovereignty, then genuine “win-win talks” can begin.
What is a “win” for the Philippines? This consists of four basic items comprising Philippine core interests:
1. Joint development, environment protection and exploitation of fishery and maritime resources in the disputed area;
2. Joint exploration, exploitation and development of oil, gas, and other mineral resources in the said area;
3. Visa-free status and cooperation in people-to-people exchanges and tourism development in the disputed islands;
4. For China to include and make the Philippines the easternmost terminal hub of the Maritime Silk Road of the 21stcentury.
The fourth item is the most important. It involves “enlarging the pie” to create a big win for both sides. It involves China helping the Philippines become the gateway to the Americas (i.e., North and South America) via Port Irene in the north and to Oceania via Port Bunggao in the south. It involves China assisting the Philippines in reviving the ancient Manila-Acapulco galleon trade route, thus extending China’s Belt and Road (B&R) initiative, or New Silk Road, to cover not only the continents of Asia, Europe, and Africa, but also the continents of North and South America and Oceania (Australia and New Zealand).
This will be a big win for China, as it will connect the New Silk Road to a revived Manila-Acapulco galleon trade route, and extend the Belt and Road initiative to six continents instead of three. But the biggest winner will be the Philippines, as it will become the epicenter of a planetary-scale economic development that will literally circumnavigate the globe.
The fourth item also involves China helping the Philippines to modernize its other major ports; a railway network north to south of both Luzon and Mindanao, to include Panay island and Cebu; a modernized telecom system (fiber optic networks and high-speed info highway); an alternative energy development (solar, wind, etc.); and industrial/manufacturing zones in select cities along the railway networks.
What is a “win” for China,” aside from the extension of its B&R initiative to cover the whole planet? Our negotiators should be aware of China’s core interests in the South China Sea. Why did China build those artificial islands, three of which have three-kilometer long airstrips? And why is China prepared to risk war with the US and its major allies like Japan and Australia over those tiny islands? There are two major reasons: the first is to prevent a US first nuclear strike, and the second is to prevent a US 7th Fleet naval blockade in the Malacca Strait.
A naval blockade of the Malacca, Sunda, and Lombok Straits where China’s oil supply from the Middle East and Africa, and trade to Europe, the Persian Gulf, and Africa, passes through — which the US and Australia have been rehearsing every other year in their “Talisman Saber” naval exercises (that included Japan in its latest exercise in 2015) — could force the Chinese economy to grind to a halt. China’s artificial islands can prevent such naval blockade because they can host China’s combat aircraft and anti-ship ballistic missiles.
So, a win for China is for the Philippines to agree to the current status quo: that both China and the Philippines continue occupying and developing the islands each country is occupying at the moment. This will put China’s mind at ease; free from worry of a possible first nuclear strike by US nuclear submarines secretly approaching China’s east coast from the Philippine Deep, or being blockaded at the Malacca Strait or other straits in the area.