FOREIGN Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. on Tuesday revealed that he had turned down a Chinese proposal to start bilateral talks because Beijing wanted to set aside last week’s international arbitration tribunal ruling on the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) dispute.
Yasay’s efforts to engage Beijing got a boost on Tuesday with President Rodrigo Duterte personally belying rumors the Foreign Affairs chief was on his way out.
“Yasay speaks for me. Everything that he says in public, both national and international, comes from my guidance and he has my backing and full support,” Duterte said in a video clip released by Malacañang.
“I would like the Philippines to know that I personally pleaded with Secretary Yasay to join my government because he is competent, honest and he knows his business,” he added.
Yasay, 69, a lawyer, was chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission from 1995 to 2000.
The President had said Yasay, who had to take a leave from a teaching post in the United States, will be acting Foreign Affairs chief for one year or until the post is turned over to Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano, who lost the elections for Vice President in May under the Duterte ticket.
In an interview over the ABS-CBN News Channel, Yasay said he had met his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, on the sidelines of the recently concluded Asia-Europe Meeting Summit in Mongolia, where the latter warned of a “confrontation” if Manila insisted on the ruling.
The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague nullified China’s historic claims overlapping with the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which includes Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal, Panganiban (Mischief) Reef, Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal and Recto (Reed) Bank.
“They had insisted for us to not even make any comments about that … and had asked us also to open ourselves for bilateral negotiations but outside of the arbitral ruling,” Yasay disclosed.
He said he rejected the offer as it was not consistent with the Philippine Constitution and national interest.
In an assertive tone, Yasay urged China to rethink its stance on its “nine-dash line” claim covering most of the South China Sea, as it could lose the respect of the international community.
“Let me say that the arbitral tribunal had really debunked in no unmistakable terms the position of China insofar as the nine-dash line is concerned,” he said, referring to Beijing’s expansive maritime claims demarcated by dashes on its own maps.
Nevertheless, Yasay said he was hopeful that the two countries would eventually find a way to settle the longstanding sea row.
Former Foreign Affairs secretary Albert del Rosario said there was nothing new with China’s strategy.
He urged Yasay to press forward and seek the help of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).
“It’s very important that we continue to do this and we continue to work with other nations in the responsible community of nations, and the world has to hear about this,” he told reporters.
‘United front needed’
The Albert del Rosario Institute (ADRi), a think tank, on Tuesday said Manila should take advantage of the favorable ruling in setting the standard for maritime interactions across the region and to build a united front in engaging China.
“For all our differences, the Philippines and its Asean partners have all had one thing in common, we all know what it is like to be small and exploited,” said political analyst Victor “Dindo” Manhit, president of ADRi during a forum at the Asian Institute of Management in Makati.
He urged the government to present its case as a legal precedent for other Asean claimant-states to the South China Sea territories, to further clarify their respective maritime entitlements and boundaries.
The ruling—and the moral high ground it gave the Philippines—will be key to aligning each country’s respective domestic policies on fishing rights and mineral and oil and gas exploration with the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), he added.
Manhit said the Philippine government should also consider synchronizing the country’s defense plan with fellow Asean maritime powers such as Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia.
“This can deter and even effectively repulse Chinese encroachments in territorial waters and EEZs,” he pointed out.
The Philippines, the analyst added, can even invoke its 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty with the United States, in addition to strengthening military partnerships with Japan, South Korea, Australia and the European Union, all of which have expressed support for the Philippines’ case.
This setup could lead to the establishment of defense economic zones in the Philippines, which could be the hub for naval or coast guard ship manufacturing.
“The Philippines must build on its political capital by sending a stern message in … upcoming regional fora that China, as a rising power, must play a constructive, rather than destabilizing, role in the region,” Manhit said.
WITH CATHERINE S. VALENTE