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Questions for Ambassador Zhao


THE British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher made a telling comment while recounting her experience in dealing with Chinese leaders during her visit to China. She wrote: “The Chinese never mince words in their own public statements, but they expect everyone else to do so.”

I thought of her words as I tried to comprehend the amazingly rude response of Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua to President Duterte’s announcement that he would bring up the the Hague Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling on the Philippine dispute with China over the South China Sea (SCS) when he meets with President Xi Jinping in Beijing later this month.

As if to warn our President off the subject, Ambassador Zhao declared: “Beijing’s position on the arbitration has been clear since it was filed before the Hague-based international tribunal.

“When the result of the arbitration came out, we also expressed that we will not accept it and we will not recognize it and that position has not changed and it will not be changed,” Zhao told reporters on Friday.

Zhao then suggested that China, despite its position on the matter, has magnanimously agreed to continue working with the Philippines on enhancing friendship and cooperation.

“The differences over the South China Sea only constitutes 1 percent of our overall relationship,” the Chinese envoy added.

Duterte’s vow
With equal attentiveness, Ambassador Zhao would do well to consider the spirit and context in which the arbitral ruling will be raised.

Duterte made the announcement in a speech at the mass oath-taking of newly elected officers of the Federation of Filipino-Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry Inc. last Tuesday.

‘’Yung arbitral ruling pag-uusapan natin ‘yan. That’s why I’m going to China.” (We will talk about the ruling. That’s why I’m going to China.)

Presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo elaborated that the President would raise the arbitral ruling when he discusses a proposed 60-40 sharing with China in a planned joint oil and gas exploration in the South China Sea.

Zhao’s remarks, coming as they did following weeks of Filipinos’ indignation and furious agitation for a stronger response to the sinking of a Filipino fishing boat by Chinese vessels, and perceived Chinese bullying, deserve a fitting response.

It will not do to diplomatically set them aside and put them in the back burner.

As one journalist who has been monitoring the South China Sea issue for some time now, I want to pose the following few questions to Zhao in response to his remarks:
1: Does China recognize and respect the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of the Republic of the Philippines, as this is defined in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), to which China is also a signatory?

2: Does China claim parts of the Philippine EEZ, in line with its claim over the entire South China Sea? What is the basis for this sweeping territorial claim ?

3: Does China also claim sovereign rights to exploit the resources in the Philippine EEZ?

If so, on what basis?

4: Why has China never apologized for the sinking of the Filipino fishing boat at the Reed (Recto) Bank,which is inside the Philippine EEZ?

5: Why has China massed its vessels around Pag-asa Island, which is sovereign Philippine territory? Does China also include it in its sweeping claim over the waterway?

6: China has its own exclusive economic zone (EEZ) under Unclos. How does China understand the word “exclusive”?

The good ambassador does not mince words in asserting China’s position on the Hague arbitral ruling.

Stop mincing words
Our government should similarly not mince words in asserting national rights over our EEZ, and in rejecting all Chinese intrusions and bullying inside the zone.

It’s time we take the gloves off in assessing and responding to China’s behavior in the SCS. We should start talking publicly about the abuses committed by China in the SCS against rival claimants to parts of the waterway.

It is good that President Duterte has directly accused China of deliberately delaying the approval of the proposed Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea, by subverting discussions at the Asean summit.

It is indeed our national policy to do business with China as a valued and friendly neighbor, in the same way that we do business with other countries, including the United States. But this friendly policy does not include kowtowing to China’s wishes.

There was a time in the distant past when China’s relations with its neighbors required obeisance to her wishes. In the present century, our countries are sovereign over their own affairs and in their relationships.

Fence-mending exercise
In an article last Saturday (August 10), the South China Morning Post reported that China is seeking to repair ties with the Philippines after the angry backlash over the sinking of the Filipino fishing boat.

Laura Zhou of the SCMP wrote: “Observers said the visit could be a fence-mending exercise after the incident, in which a Chinese trawler was accused of ramming the other ship before it fled the scene, leaving 22 Filipino fishermen in the sea until a passing Vietnamese boat came to the rescue.

“The incident triggered a strong backlash in the Philippines, and opposition politicians demanded a stronger response to China’s increasingly assertive stance after years of increasingly warm ties under Duterte.

“The visit to Beijing will be Duterte’s fifth as president and he said he would use it to address all South China Sea issues, including the 2016 ruling that rejected China’s claim to the waters.

“The decision by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in 2016 triggered a serious diplomatic crisis until Duterte, who came to power a month before the ruling was delivered, visited Beijing and said he would ‘set aside’ the ruling.”

Kang Lin, director of the Hainan Institute for Regional Development and Governance, as quoted by Zhou, said: “The ruling could be a reasonable political tool for Duterte as he is halfway through his six-year term and is now under intense pressure over tensions with China in the South China Sea.”

Ambassador Zhao’s statement in Manila harkens to an old and different view of the issue. It seeks to douse cold water on Duterte’s plan to raise the arbitral ruling during his meeting with Xi.

If the object of Zhao’s harsh words was to stop all discussion, they should intensify even more our President’s resolve to discuss all issues during his visit to China.

Significantly, Xu Liping, director of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Center for Southeast Asian Studies, as again quoted by Zhou, says intense domestic pressure prompted by the ship’s sinking could be an ‘urgent factor’ behind Duterte’s upcoming visit to China, the second since April.

Xu said in Zhou’s article: “The two sides will try to avoid any misunderstandings and miscalculations over the South China Sea issues … as Duterte is now facing enormous political pressure.

“‘This can hardly be fully resolved by Duterte alone and a joint effort with China is also needed to ensure negative sentiment [against China] does not grow.’

“Beijing has tried to play down the collision between the two vessels, with the Chinese embassy in Manila insisting that the Chinese ship had tried to rescue the fishermen but fled after being ‘suddenly besieged by seven or eight Filipino fishing boats.’

“Xu said Beijing may also want to review its way of handling the crisis, which had ‘a big room for improvement.’

“‘There was no apology nor explanation from the Chinese side and that’s why there has been deep negativity towards China,’ Xu said.”

The state and prospects of China-Philippine relations look much better when you set aside the ill-considered words of Ambassador Zhao. I hope my questions will merit a response from him.

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