POSTSCRIPT / July 19, 2016 / Tuesday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Opinion Columnist

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Panatag holds key to Phl-China row

WAR is not an option, President Rodrigo Duterte says correctly, ignoring pressure for him to take more forceful action against China’s having illegally seized strategic features in the West Philippine Sea.

Just 19 days into the presidency and one week after the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague upheld most of the 15 submissions of the Philippines against China’s land-grabbing, Mr. Duterte prefers to err on the side of caution than confrontation.

Studying the firepower “tale of the tape” between lightweight Philippines and heavyweight China (No. 3 among world powers), one can sense why the pragmatic President took the option of directly talking with Beijing on outstanding issues. (See Globalfirepower.com)

Neighborly negotiations bear fruit faster. With just six years in his hands, Mr. Duterte cannot just watch time ticking away while waiting for supposed allies to use their good offices or muster economic pressure on China to mend its expansionist ways.

The Philippines has a Mutual Defense Treaty with the United States. The Cold War-vintage contract, however, has no ironclad guarantee that the US will retaliate instantaneously except if China launches an armed attack on either of the two allies’ territory or armed forces.

The treaty cannot be stretched to cover what the arbitral tribunal struck down in its July 12 ruling as illegal Chinese occupation or building (by reclamation) of artificial islands on reefs and rocks in the West Philippine Sea.

One of the disputed maritime features is Panatag (Scarborough) shoal, 120 nautical miles off Zambales that the Chinese grabbed in 2012. Reports are rife, and Beijing has not denied them, that China would reclaim Panatag and turn it into a military outpost — next door to Manila, Clark Field and Subic Bay.

China’s reclaiming Panatag or driving away Filipinos, declared by the PCA as a violation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, is not an “armed attack” so the MDT does not come into play – except if the Chinese fire live bullets in the process.

• Panatag could help save face for China

THE BEST option for President Duterte is to talk to his Chinese counterpart or emissaries. A new ambassador plenipotentiary must be assigned to Beijing posthaste, followed by an exchange of top-level official visits.

One breakthrough that should be aimed for QUIETLY is to persuade China to stop driving away Filipinos from Panatag, which for generations has been their traditional fishing ground.

This could be the dramatic face-saving scenario that China has been looking for. Whatever modus vivendi that may arise from it could serve as model for similar situations elsewhere. Some points:

• Although Panatag is well within the Philippine 200-nm Exclusive Economic Zone, The Hague ruled that nobody owns it exclusively and should be shared by those historically fishing there. Allowing back Filipinos would be seen as compliance with the PCA ruling and a neighborly gesture that the watching world could appreciate.

• The fishery resources of Panatag are more than enough for everybody, so the Chinese need not worry. The lagoon inside the chain of reefs and rocks has an area of 150 square kilometers (58 sq. miles). In bad weather fishermen can seek shelter inside through an entrance at its eastern corner.

• Without discussing sovereignty issues, China and the Philippines can invite Vietnam to join the Panatag talks and proceed together to lay down guidelines for fishing and sharing, as well as conservation, mutual assistance and protocol.

• Zhao explains how talks firm up ties

THE CHINESE embassy in Manila has been doing its part. Ambassador Zhao Jianhua noted during the 41st commemoration last June 9 of the establishment of relations that the “friendship between China and the Philippines goes back to ancient times.”

During the celebration also marking the 15th China-Philippines Friendship Day, Ambassador Zhao shared the story of Zheng He, an explorer and fleet admiral who led seven expeditionary voyages to Southeast Asia, South Asia, Western Asia, and East Africa from 1405 to 1433.

During a stopover in Mindanao, Zheng He established good relationship with the Sultan of Sulu. The Sultan later on led a delegation of 300 people who visited China in 1417. They were well-received by the Ming Emperor Yongle.

The ambassador said such stories as that of Zheng He are “proof of the traditional friendship that exists between the two countries and their people.”

Many Filipinos are skeptical about forging Philippines-China cooperation, especially when the dispute over the West Philippine Sea is discussed. Their nationalistic fervor is stirred up when they sense they are being fooled.

“People cannot always cling to the past,” the ambassador said: “If we take history as a mirror, we cannot only see the past, but also the future… Change isn’t always a bad thing.”

The Philippine-China Agreement signed on June 9, 1975, resulted in major agreements in trade, science and technology, investment promotion, postal services, air services, culture, agriculture cooperation, tax, extradition, joint marine seismic undertakings, and the framework of bilateral relations in the 21st Century.

China’s technology, financing and manufacturing capabilities can help in infrastructure development, high quality railway systems, creation of industrial parks, and improvements in tourism, agriculture, and irrigation systems. These will help boost local manufacturing capacity, trade and economic development, employment and government revenues.

Countries like Vietnam and Singapore have bilateral engagement with China, including high level visits and military consultations. In April 2016, Vietnam completed a joint inspection with China on waters outside the mouth of Beibu Gulf, a move to resolve maritime disputes through cooperation.

Despite having similar territorial disputes with China, these countries show that nothing is impossible, given enough openness to proper negotiations.

(First published in the Philippine STAR of July 19, 2016)

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