POSTSCRIPT / February 27, 2014 / Thursday


Opinion Columnist

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Good Ph-China fences make good neighbors?

MENDING WALL: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” muses American poet Robert Frost (1874–1963) in his metaphorical “Mending Wall”, noting how even nature wears down walls or people take away a stone or plank off a fence when they have to.

Frost says in free verse: “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know/ What I was walling in or walling out,/ And to whom I was like to give offense. /Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.

But his imagined neighbor insists, from his side of the fence, on restoring the damaged wall between their properties, simply repeating a mid-17TH Century adage “Good fences make good neighbors.”

One wishes it could be as simple as “mending wall” in the case, for instance, between the Philippines and China, its neighbor to the north.

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WATER CANNON: China has served notice that the areas claimed by the Philippines in what the Chinese call the South China Sea are its sovereign territory and will do everything to keep and protect them.

It has drawn its own marine boundaries and warned all foreign ships and aircraft to notify it before venturing into that secured area, an unprecedented provocative unilateral move.

The recent shooting of water cannons by Chinese coastal patrols at unarmed Filipino fishermen in the vicinity of Panatag (Scarborough) shoal just 220 kilometers off Zambales added insult to the insolent Chinese claim over that rich fishing area that is actually 650 km from Hainan island, the nearest major Chinese land mass.

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ARBITRATION REJECTED: Lacking military muscle, poor Philippines could only mumble a reiteration of its counterclaim, fire a brave diplomatic protest, and appeal to the international community to denounce what a Camp Aguinaldo official said was a Chinese act of aggression.

There is not much that Manila can do except to continue protesting and pressing its petition for arbitration in the United Nations.

The problem with arbitration is that for it to progress, all parties must yield to the process and bind themselves to accept and honor the decision – and China refuses to enter arbitration.

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U.S. THE LAST CARD: Manila is likely hoping that its friend and ally the United States could be played as its last card. The big question, however, is if the US would allow itself to be played against China.

By “last card” we do not mean something like the Philippines risking an armed confrontation to test the vaunted PH-US Mutual Defense Treaty and the endless American lullaby that it would defend the Philippines if attacked.

We have in mind the US using pressure or persuasion on China to enter into arbitration. After all China is a signatory to the UNCLOS (although, mark this, the US has not even ratified the convention!).

Or the US can use its good offices to convince China to bend backwards a little to accommodate some minor points of Manila, to concede some consuelo so the Philippines does not lose face if it softens its stand.

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POSSIBLE ITEMS: A policy review by China on territorial disputes will not necessarily mean abandoning its firm stand. It could just allow the Aquino regime more space to buy time and let succeeding administrations to deal with the remaining issues.

Such accommodation will not come cheap. Malacañang already knows some of the things that Beijing wants done for it to listen to other items on the agenda.

An apology for the Luneta hostage-taking fiasco where several Hong Kong tourists were killed because of mishandling by Philippine authorities may be one of them. That is not too expensive, except to some officials ruled by high pride.

There may be some projects that state firms in China are interested in pushing that Malacañang may suddenly find meritorious. Joint exploration and exploitation of mineral resources in some disputed areas might also be worth reviewing and considering..

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BILATERAL TALKS: Directly touching on territorial disputes is the long-standing demand of China to iron out misunderstanding by direct bilateral negotiations.

Here is China already telling us what it wants that might unlock the reservoir of goodwill needed to fix problems!

But this point has been clouded by American meddling. Washington has told Manila not to go into direct bilateral talks with Beijing but to approach territorial disputes in multilateral fashion, such as through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

But some ASEAN members are already dealing directly with China, and here we are still following the US dictum of not talking to Beijing directly and alone.

Let us be ourselves, try bilateral dialogue, and not sit for a noisy multilateral concert.

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NEIGHBORS FOREVER: As we keep saying here, we may change policies and ideologies now and then, but we cannot alter geography. When God created the earth, He placed China and the Philippines close to each other. Let us search for a mutually beneficial modus vivendi as neighbors.

Much of the increasingly complicated modern world may agree that indeed good fences make good neighbors. But who draws the dividing line on the ground or on water and enforces the fence?

It helps when physical boundaries such as rivers and mountain ranges define where one state ends and where another begins, or when demarcations are clearly set out in treaties and settlements resulting from war, conquest, sale, donations, and such.

The United Nations has addressed the diverse maritime problems by arranging the negotiation and adoption of the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas. But some signatories like China still insist on their sovereign interests when they come in conflict with international law.

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BEAT THE FIELD: Make playing reservations early for the first CLARK GOLF CUP on March 21, a Friday, at the Mimosa Golf & Country Club in the Clark Freeport, Pampanga. Only 144 players will be accommodated. Registration start at 6:30 a.m., followed by the ceremonial tee-off at 7:30 a.m. The tournament proper blasts off at 8 a.m. shotgun. 

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of February 27, 2014)

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