BEIJING, China—While the Duterte administration has not used the arbitral court’s favorable ruling on the country’s claims to parts of the South China Sea, the country has “not lost an inch of the disputed territory,” the Philippine Ambassador to China, Jose Santiago Sta. Romana said Wednesday.
“I think we have gained,” Sta. Romana told Filipino journalists who are in Beijing for the Communication University of China Senior Workshop for Philippine Media.
“Now, the Chinese are saying they won’t build,” Sta. Romana said, referring to the Scarborough Shoal, which the Philippines claims as its own, but which China occupies. “There is a consensus to keep it as a fisheries area.”
He added that Filipino fishermen now have access to the shoal again.
“Whereas before our fishermen could not fish around the Scarborough Shoal or near the Scarborough Shoal, now, by looking at areas where the two sides can find agreement, that has been resolved,” he said.
The ambassador also noted that the Chinese have lifted their blockade on the supply routes to Ayungin and Pag-Asa Island.
“So I don’t think we’ve lost an inch of territory, we have gained what we lost for so many years. We have regained some of the features or areas we don’t have access to. So I think basically what we are trying to do through this approach is not only to defend what we have but to preserve what we have and if possible to regain what we have lost in the past,” Sta. Romana said.
“And this is I think an approach based on an understanding on how to deal with China. I think this was the shortcoming in the past. If you deal with China in a hard way, in the hardball manner you will face the same equally hard, if not harder approach from the Chinese. This is an important lesson from history,” he said.
The ambassador said Vietnam and Russia used to have conflicts with China, but have dealt peacefully with Beijing in the last two or three decades.
He noted that Vietnam and China settled their border dispute, even though it took 10 years to reach an agreement.
“When you start to talk and you start to negotiate, the key is preparation and strategic patience as well as a good negotiating team because the Chinese negotiate very seriously and it takes time. They will try to outlast you if possible,” Sta. Romana said.
“But if you try to force an issue, it will result in the escalation of tension, and possibly conflict as we have known from history in the past 30 years,” he added.
Sta. Romana also said the Philippines needed to de-link the country’s bilateral differences with China and the strategic rivalry between Washington and Beijing.
It has been a year since the Permanent Court of Arbitration said the Philippines has the lawful rights over the West Philippine Sea, but the Duterte administration has not used that victory in its dealings with China.
Sta. Romana said this was the result of a paradigm shift, a basic change in approach in handling relations with China.
Instead of the previous approach of putting the disputes at the center of the bilateral relations, he said the Duterte administration decided to separate it into two tracks. He said the contentious issues were placed on one track and the non-contentious issues on the other track.
“The contentious issues of course are those of sovereignty, [and] the issue of maritime jurisdiction,” the ambassador said.
However, he said there is a whole range of non-contentious issues where there are no differences—trade, economics, infrastructure, science, and culture, where the two countries can cooperate.
But if you put the disputes at the center as the previous administration did, then these other areas become frozen, he said.
“Where do you discuss these contentious issues? So this is the idea of bilateral mechanism comes in that was inaugurated last May. And this is where you can discuss the sensitive issues,” he said.
Sta. Romana said the government would not give up its claim on the South China Sea territories, nor abandon the arbitral tribunal’s decision, but would take a pragmatic approach.
“There is a saying that you need two hands to clap, to shake hands. We’re not negotiating alone by ourselves. We are negotiating with another side and the position is different. So because of this you have to deal with these separate tracks and use bilateral talks to deal with areas that you can discuss and resolve over time,” he said.
Sta. Romana said the world has changed, and with Marawi, there is another unifying factor: the struggle against extemism.
This was the reason the government decided to accept military assistance from China, which has expressed willingness to help in the battle against terrorism and illegal drugs.
The ambassador noted that unlike in the past, there are high-level exchanges now.
“So at least we have restored all bilateral mechanisms,” he said. “The two foreign ministries are talking again, the two coast guards have formed joint committees in areas where they can cooperate.”
In the coming months, Sta. Romana said they will restore joint commission for defense and security.
In Manila, one of the key players in obtaining a favorable decision from the arbitral tribunal, Senior Associate Justice Antonio Cario, said the Philippines should lodge another case against China to stop the superpower from its reclamation of Scarborough Shoal.
In a forum on the first year anniversary of the Philippine’s victory over claims in the West Philippine Sea, Carpio suggested to include in a possible fresh case the extended continental shelf claim on the disputed sea off the coast of Luzon, similar to the case it won for oil-resource-rich Benham Rise in 2012.
“The Philippines should now prepare to file another arbitration case before the tribunal on the ground that any reclamation of Scarborough Shoal will destroy the shoal as a traditional fishing ground of Filipino fishermen as ruled by the arbitral tribunal,” Carpio said in a forum organized by Stratbase ADR Institute in Makati.
A year after the arbitral tribunal rule in favor of the Philippines and finding that China’s nine-dash line policy is illegal and excessive, Beijing has continued its military positions in the South China Sea, building structures for missile systems, including at our own Panganiban or Mischief Reef.
Former Department of Foreign Affairs secretary Albert del Rosario also suggested that Manila should reassume again its leadership among claimant countries and other neighbors and friends, in asserting the Philippines’ sovereignty rights in the disputed sea.
Del Rosario added that despite Beijing’s “friendlier face,” China has never observed restraint in its militarization and “unlawful activity” in the West Philippine Sea.
“Over the same period, we have not seen the change that we would have wanted from Beijing. It has neither changed in its direction nor exercised greater restraint,” he said.
Del Rosario claimed the Chinese “civilian” facilities threaten the freedom with which all vessels, public, commercial, or fishing, ply the waters, as well as the freedom exclusive to our people to benefit from the wealth of resources there.
“Beijing’s aggressive actions are not accidental, they are intentional, and they continue to this day,” he said.
Carpio and former Solicitor General Florin Hilbay on Wednesday criticized the administration of President Duterte for ignoring the award they won in the arbitration case against China.
Carpio and Hilbay were part of the legal team that initiated the arbitration case against China on the disputed territories in the South China Sea where the PCA rendered judgment in favor of the Philippines.
The senior magistrate and the former chief state lawyer both slammed the policy adopted by the Duterte administration on the issue despite the government’s victory before the PCA.
“I was aghast the President used the term ‘setting aside’ (the PCA award),” Carpio said.
The government on Wednesday reaffirmed its commitment to protect the country’s territorial claims and maritime entitlements, but opted to resolve the territorial disputes in the West Philippine Sea amicably. With Sara Susanne Fabunan, Rey E. Requejo, PNA
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