By William Casis | FilAm Star Correspondent
BEIJING, CHINA – July 12 marks the anniversary of the arbitral ruling in favor of the Philippines over China against the West Philippine Sea (or South China Sea) disputed territories. But while the arbitral ruling has not taken center stage in the Duterte administration, the country’s Ambassador to China Jose Santiago Sta. Romana assured that “we have not lost an inch of the disputed territory.”
“I think we have gained,” Sta. Romana told Filipino journalists in Beijing for the Communication University of China (CUC) Senior Workshop for Philippine Media with the theme “2017 Understanding China.”
“Now, the Chinese are saying they won’t build. There is a consensus to keep it (West Philippine Sea) now as a maritime, fishery area,” said Sta. Romana.
“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 in the sense, there is now access for Filipino fishermen there.”
“Whereas before, the supply lines to Ayungin Shoal to our soldiers in the ship, the Chinese had a blockade and now that blockade has been lifted so now the supply lines are open.”
He said the same is true for supply lines in Pag-Asa and the other Philippine territories.
“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 areas we don’t have access to. So I think, basically, what we are trying to do is hopefully, through this approach, 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,” explained Sta. Romana.
“And this I think is 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 also said.
Sta. Romana mentioned about Vietnam and the Soviet Union, both were in conflict with China but that they have dealt peacefully with China in the past decades.
In the case of the Vietnamese, he said the governments of China and Vietnam have been talking with China on how to delineate their land border, their Gulf of Tonkin since the 70s.
“And they went through stages… and first it was a hard approach. Vietnam was then supported by the Soviet Union and that has led to the border clashes. They had conflict and the Vietnamese only changed their position when the Soviet Union collapsed and there was no longer any support and what did they do? They decided to negotiate with the Chinese,” related Sta. Romana.
Still, Sta. Romana noted that it took the two countries almost 10 years when they finally reached an agreement on the borders.
“And on the Gulf of Tonkin they were able to come up with a border that is almost 50-50 between the two,” he said.
He said the same is true for the Soviet Union which had border clashes in the Northeast which gave them the opportunity for Presidents Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger to approach Mao and that went on until the Soviet Union collapsed. then Gorbachev and Yeltsin started a new era.
In the case of China, he remembered Deng Xiao Ping and Jiang Zemin who started negotiations, then re-started negotiations beginning in the 60s and renewed talks in the 90s.
Again, he said it took over a decade until the two countries finally agreed to draw a border in the middle of Ussuri river. “A disputed island was demarcated almost in the middle.”
“Talks start negotiations, and 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,” explained Sta. Romana.
But if you try to force an issue, he said, it will result in the escalation of tension, and possibly conflict as history shows in the past 30 years.
While it has been a year since the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) said the Philippines has the lawful rights over the West Philippine Sea, Duterte merely shelved it.
The PCA said “An arbitral tribunal has declared that between the Philippines and China, there was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources, in excess of the rights provided for by the Convention, within the sea areas falling within the ‘9-dash line.’”
Sta. Romana pointed out that over the past year, there was 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 is the issue of sovereignty, the issue of maritime jurisdiction including the nine-dash line and of course the other player is added to the contentious issue, the difference of position of Philippines and China on the arbitral tribunal decision, we expressed our view to abide and comply with it, the Chinese do not accept it,” he said.
However, he said there is a whole range of non-contentious issues where there’s no difference – trade, economics, infrastructure, science, culture, the whole range of areas where you could cooperate but which were frozen in the past.
So when you put the disputes at the center, he said the basic approach now is don’t let the disputes be an obstacle to developing. He said the Duterte administration is really hastening on economics, trade, cultural, education and all the other areas affected with the disputes at the center. He said it affects the whole atmosphere so the idea is to separate them.
“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 basically discuss issues, the sensitive issues where of concern to our side as well as issues of concern to the Chinese side,” said Sta. Romana.
He said the basic approach then is if the differences can be resolved right away having existed for quite some time, then at least the Philippine governmenr can try to manage the issue to ease the tensions in the South China Sea/West Philippine Sea.
He said this can be managed in a way that the government can find areas of cooperation, set up confidence-measures while trying to discuss this. “In other words, you try to combine principle and pragmatism.”
Having the principle, Sta. Romana vowed the Philippine government will not give up claim nor abandon the tribunal award.
“But pragmatism because you know, 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 hopefully resolve overtime,” he said.
In general, he said the tensions between the Philippines and China have eased. He said the basic direction is to try to stabilize the situation and to develop trust and confidence between the two sides.”
“There are still difference and challenges that remain but this is where like in the inaugural meeting of the bilateral mechanism, basically all the issues were touched, at least brought up. Some differences remained.”
“But at least you are able to talk about it in an amicable and civil manner. So in this sense, we have made progress over the past year and basically, where there are differences, we continue talking about it and, where there are no difference, we continue further developing relations that are mutually beneficial.”
He also said that since then, the situation in the US, in the world and in the Philippine has changed and now with Marawi, there is another unifying factor: the common struggle against extremism.
This was the rationale for the Philippines decision to accept military assistance from the Chinese and from other countries.
He said China is willing to help with the anti-extremism, anti-terrorism and the anti-narcotics campaigns in the Philippines.
He added there are high level exchanges now “so at least we have restored all bilateral mechanisms. The two foreign ministries are talking again, the two coastguards 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. He said the two military establishments of the Philippines and China have dialogues on this matter.
He said the same has already happened for joint trade commissions, joint agricultural commissions and joint fishery commissions.