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Philippines – 1; China – 0

By: Jobers R. Bersales July 13,2016 - 09:54 PM

Not that it was unexpected but the victory was still nonetheless most welcome for our country and all others that really could do nothing more than watch as the People’s Republic China was systematically occupying and expanding many of the islets that make up the Spratlys on our western border.

Way back when I was a graduate student in Philippine Studies at the University of the Philippines in Diliman in the early 1990s, the issue of the Spratlys, those tiny pieces of coralline outcrops that remain above the surface at high tide on the South China Sea, was already an important part of one of the subjects I had taken.

We already knew then that we can ill afford a war with giant China but that the law, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), was clearly and without doubt in our favor. That is why the Aquino government brought China’s squatting to the arbitration tribunal in The Hague, the Netherlands.

So what next for the Philippines, China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean)? Three other Asean members, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam, also have overlapping claims to the region believed to be rich in oil and a vital sea lanes where 60 percent of the world’s cargo ships pass through.

The ball is clearly in China’s court and judging from the pronouncement coming out of Beijing, thus far, there is no way it will recognize the tribunal’s decision. On the other end is the Philippines, who now has a bargaining chip recognized by most of the modern world. Despite its protestations, China now has to match this decision with a response along its pronouncements that it does not want to go to war but wants the issue resolved peacefully.

On the Philippine side, I do not know if Pres. Digong Duterte was joking or not during the last debate but it is not yet the time to plant the Philippine flag on all those islands that China has since occupied. I know many Filipinos are tempted to imagine a preemptive strike, as it were, while the iron is still hot by invoking our mutual defense agreement with the United States and confront China on the high seas.

A hundred or less years ago that would have been the prudent thing to do, never mind if we do not have the corresponding military hardware to do so.

But this is not the time to gloat about our victory. With the tribunal’s decision, the hand of the Philippines has been strengthened on a possible negotiating table. If China, for example, wants joint development and exploration, we should be open to it but on our terms and with the greater benefits for our country.

We should not, at the same time, forget that China is a superpower and has the military-industrial might to sustain this position in Asia, despite the challenges that Japan, and even India, may pose.

The negotiations from hereon will be difficult and will probably strain our relationship with China as much as with pro-Beijing Asean members, but we must never alienate this superpower on our backyard the way it has done so by itself in the world court of public opinion following this arbitral decision.

Lost in this bitter tug-of-war for ownership of the Spratlys are the fishermen of Zambales who have lost their livelihoods. Perhaps we can start from there and see how China can help, without necessarily going into the larger picture.

Then, too, as China began occupying Scarborough Shoal within this region some four years back, there was allegedly an underwater archaeological project carried out jointly with the National Museum of the Philippines that had to stop just as it was close to discovering a Chinese trading boat of centuries past, one of many that had been wrecked by storms long gone.

Perhaps as a sign of cooperation, China can allow the project to continue, of course, without any interference whatsoever and on the condition that the artifacts be curated by the NM. They can be exhibited in China later but their ownership must remain with the Philippines.

If we cannot agree on even just this one small piece of a project, a scientific one at that, then I do not think we will ever see the light at the end of this tunnel that China has brought itself in.

So, is China interested to score a “1” this time?

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TAGS: Asean, China, dispute, Du30, Duterte, Philippines, President Duterte, President Rodrigo Duterte, President Rodrigo Roa Duterte, Rody Duterte, UNCLOS

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