POSTSCRIPT / June 12, 2014 / Thursday


Opinion Columnist

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A kind of TRO needed for Phl-China disputes

TEMPORARY?: While Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua was telling an assembly of businessmen last Tuesday that the maritime disputes between his country and the Philippines are only temporary, China was busy grabbing and building on areas claimed by its neighbors.

Zhao’s call for “the wisdom, the patience and the courage (of the two countries) to settle the disputes through negotiations and consultations” was not reassuring enough. It was as empty as Chinese buchi.

Just days ago, President Noynoy Aquino (who also spoke, diplomatically, before the same Federation of Filipino-Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry addressed by Zhao) reported that Chinese ships that may be used for reclamation were seen in the Gavin and Cuarteron Reefs.

Weeks earlier, the President also accused China of violating an informal code of conduct in the South China Sea with its reclamation in the Mabini Reef near Palawan. The Chinese have been building a site that can harbor an airstrip and security-related facilities too close for comfort.

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PEACEFUL?: Zhao said: “Compared with our thousand-year-old friendship and extensive cooperation, the difficulties we are facing on the South China Sea issue are temporary. It is our common responsibility to handle the South China Sea issue in a proper and peaceful manner.”

The problem is that when the Chinese say temporary, in their sweeping view of history that could mean centuries. During the long wait, the Philippines would have been annexed by China and our grandchildren would be chattering in what might sound like Mandarin.

When the Chinese ambassador said proper and peaceful, was he referring to the firing of water cannons, the ramming of smaller ships and the bullying away of Filipinos from their traditional fishing grounds?

Filipinos need more than reassuring words. If only there could be a kind of enforceable TRO (temporary restraining order) while the two countries talk in earnest of a status quo ante or a return to the situation before the creeping Chinese occupation started.

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DIRECT DIALOG?: We long to see the day when Filipinos are able to fish again at Panatag shoal off Zambales, when the island town of Kalayaan in the Spratlys ceases worrying of an alien takeover, and when Filipino and Chinese technicians drill together for gas and oil undisturbed by power politics.

To work out such an agreement resembling a diplomatic TRO of sorts, however, Manila may have to enter into direct bilateral talks with Beijing – contrary to the US formula of multilateral bargaining possibly through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

There is also the question of what to do with the United Nations arbitration initiated by the Philippines at The Hague. China can be expected to demand the dropping of arbitration if the Philippines wants direct negotiations.

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PEOPLE-TO-PEOPLE: Bilateral relations actually happen at various levels. While there is official government-to-government relation, there is the more convivial people-to-people contact, sometimes carried out informally by plain folk, tourists or businessmen.

Nations may wage war against each other, or their leaders escalate their hurt personal pride into battles, but usually their respective populations that are more concerned with making a living have no inclination to engage in mutually destructive confrontation.

Businessmen, civic groups and non-governmental organizations can look deeper into this aspect of bilateral relations and help promote positive people-to-people relations.

State policies are sometimes mere amplified echoes of the perceived public pulse. If the public is belligerent toward other peoples, the pervading public opinion could evolve into official thinking and affect foreign relations.

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PUBLIC OPINION: In this area, the Filipino-Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry, many of whose members are dual citizens, can contribute to promoting cordial relations and minimizing the irritants distorting official thinking.

It is possible that Beijing maintains a hardline in its territorial disputes with its neighbors because of a perception that majority of the Chinese population, especially in the urban areas, want it to act that way.

And it could be that a great number of Chinese have been conditioned to support an aggressive expansionist campaign in the South China Sea because they think that this is the official line as reported and reinforced in the controlled media. It could be a self-feeding cycle of misimpressions.

Through their contacts on both sides, private business and civic groups can help mold a more tolerant attitude among the people and thereby influence official thinking. Everybody benefits from the resulting well-being generated by enlightenment and good faith.

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WAITING ARMS: What looks like Chinese aggression, amplified in the media, is driving the Philippines into the waiting arms of the United States.

In 1991, the Philippines decided not to renew the American lease on base areas. But now with the specter of Chinese aggression there is a growing consensus to give Americans basing sites – if they still want them.

The US is trying hard not to look that eager to have the bases back as showing excessive interest could jack up the price.

Knowing that the Philippines needs badly an American protective umbrella, the US wants to be allowed a so-called rotating enhanced military presence under its own terms.

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PIVOT TO ASIA: While it still has to refine and polish its industrial mix and sprawl, China is fast emerging as Asia’s top economic power and threatening to rival the US as the military kingpin in the region.

Seeing the flexing and snorting of the Chinese dragon, the US has announced its intention to beef up its minimal military presence in Asia and rebalance its armed forces by around 60 percent to the Pacific.

It will take much time and resources to pull off this massive pivot. The US first has to fix its political accounts on the Atlantic side and resolve its domestic economic problems.

Chinese expansionist aggression, meantime, helps the US find willing hosts for its forces in need of bases.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of June 12, 2014)

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