International and local maritime experts on June 7 advised the Philippines to pursue true cooperation from China, with the help of fellow Southeast Asian nations, to deal with the territorial dispute in the West Philippine Sea.

“It starts with the Philippines approaching its fellow claimants in Southeast Asia, bilaterally and multilaterally, not begging China on bended knee that, ‘pretty please, play ball this time.’ Because Beijing’s not gonna play ball,” said Gregory Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

In a press briefing organized by the US embassy in Manila to launch the “Oceans of Opportunity” series of webinars, Poling said the Philippines has been pleading with China for years — to no avail. 

He noted that the Philippines has been also seeking cooperation from fellow South China Sea claimants since 1998 through the “Code of Conduct process.”

That process outlined mechanisms on scientific research, environmental conservation, fisheries protection but “none of that has happened. It’s been a quarter century of absolutely zero movement,” he said.

Cooperation was also sought from China through joint oil and gas surveys but “Beijing has been consistently unwilling to meet it halfway.”

“They’ve both fallen apart over the question of whether the Philippines is actually allowed to have a continental shelf, China says no, the Philippines says yes,” said Poling.

“Yes, pursue joint development but let’s stop trying to go back and redo things that have failed consistently,” he added. 

At the same briefing, Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines’ Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, shared this view, adding that Manila should be seeking “fair” cooperation.

“Cooperation, yes, but it should be cooperation that creates trust and confidence. It’s cooperation that is based on mutual respect and equality, not cooperation for the purpose of taking advantage of a weaker party.”

Batongbacal noted that the Philippines forged several successful maritime cooperation, including with Taiwan in the north and Malaysia in the south.

“We’ve had good records. But with respect to this big issue, China, unfortunately, our experience has not been very good. We did try everything that we could think of, yet there was no movement and instead, the other party just kept getting more assertive and, in a way, aggressive by pressing its claims into our waters,” Batongbacal said.

The webinar series, which kicked off Monday night, has three sessions covering not only maritime law and related issues such as the South China Sea/West Philippine Sea but also issues on plastic pollution, as well as adapting to climate change and avenues for regional cooperation.

Earlier, Vice-president Leni Robredo also called for the Philippines to seek the cooperation of the other Southeast Asian claimants on the South China Sea, contending that dealing with China alone would be unproductive.    

Robredo urged the Duterte administration to bring the WPS row into a multilateral discussion as “Beijing knows very well that it would lose if it dealt with the problem multilaterally.” 

Two days earlier, officials of the Philippines and China met virtually for the sixth engagement of the Bilateral Consultation Meeting on the South China Sea. In fact, the virtual meeting only discussed the possible compensation for the infamous GemVer fishing boat whose crew were supposedly rammed by Chinese militia vessel and left the man floating at sea.