BY ROMMEL C. BANLAOI
Originally published at the Philippine Star on June 10, 2011
While commemorating the 36th anniversary of the establishment of Philippines-China Relations signed on 9 June 1975, China Ambassador to the Philippines, Liu Jianchao, exclaimed that the Philippines’ protests against China on the Reed Bank and Iroquois Reef-May Douglas Bank incidents were all based on “bad rumors”.
Referring particularly to the Iroquois Reef-May Douglas Bank incident, the Chinese Ambassador stressed, “It’s a bad rumor because we have no intention of occupying one of the islands. We clarified the reaction which was aimed at seismic survey that was done there so this is something that should not be played up because after all it’s just a survey not by military vessels but vessels for the survey.”
The ambassador has also reiterated the long-standing position of China that the South China Sea belongs to China and its “ownership” of the said water is “indisputable.” He even tells other claimants to the disputes, particularly the Philippines and Vietnam, “to stop searching the possibility of exploiting resources in the area where China has claims.” The ambassador also underscores that if the countries with claims in the South China want to explore and exploit any resources in the disputed water, “you can talk to China about the possibility of having a joint cooperation development and exploitation of natural resources.”
The Philippines, however, maintains its “firm stand” that the Reed Bank and the Iroquois Reef-May Douglas Bank belong to its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) where the country has all the exclusive rights to explore and exploit the natural resources of the area. Presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said that the Philippines was only protesting “incursions into Philippine territorial waters by Chinese vessels.” Despite the strong statement of the Chinese ambassador against the Philippines protests, Lacierda stated that the Philippines will continue its activities in its EEZ, especially the oil exploration activities in the Reed Bank.
These exchanges of strong words between the Philippines and China over the South China Sea Dispute indicate the seemingly irreconcilable difference between the two countries on the issue. Both countries are now engaged in a word war, which poses a great diplomatic challenge in Philippines-China Relations. If not carefully managed, this word war can deteriorate into a diplomatic crisis that both countries do not want to happen.
The word war between the Philippines and China on the South China Sea Dispute is happening at the time when both countries should be joyfully celebrating the 36th year of their bilateral relation, which in 2005 was just declared to have reached the “golden age of partnership”.
This year, however, sees the sudden deterioration of Philippines-China relation as a result of conflicting claims in the South China Sea. The word war between the Philippines and China over the South China Sea Dispute has created unnecessary ill-feelings on both sides that if not assuaged properly can make both countries at odd with each other.
Since 1975, when the Philippines and China normalized their diplomatic relations, their partnership has become comprehensive spanning cultural, economic, political and even military areas. This comprehensive partnership even led to the signing of the Joint Action Plan for Strategic Cooperation in 2009 as a living testament of their deepening friendship and growing partnership for mutual benefits. The Philippines even celebrated the 35thanniversary of Philippines-China Relations in Nanning, China in 2010 on the occasion of 7th China-ASEAN Expo.
The year 2011, however, is one of the worst years in Philippines-China Relations after the Mischief Reef controversy in 1995 and the Scarborough Shoal incident in 1997.
It looks very impossible for China and the Philippines to give up their respective claims in the South China Sea because of the growing demand from both countries to access and exploit the valuable resources, particularly oil/gas and fish, in the disputed water. But if both governments will continue to exchange harsh words against each other on the issue, it will not only harm state-to-state relations, it will also affect people-to-people contacts.
If both countries are really serious in pursuing peaceful means to settle their differences, they have to mutually exercise self-restraint in publicly criticizing each other by exchanging harsh words so that government-level “misunderstanding” will not spill-over to the misunderstanding of their people.
Blog sites and networking sites are now filled with comments from citizens of their countries lambasting one another. If this trend continues, government-level differences can trigger racial outrage that will further inflict harm on Philippines-China relations.
The Philippines and China have already made tremendous accomplishments in their bilateral relations over the past 36 years. The South China Sea Dispute shall not be the reason why both countries have to retrogress in their ties.
While there is no doubt that the Philippines and China have conflicting stand on the South China Sea Dispute, their commitment to settle their territorial disputes by peaceful means shall be strongly emphasized in public discourse. Rather than focus on their differences, both countries shall concentrate in discussing issues of mutual interests and make sure that issues of mutual interests will redound to their citizens. In this case, the positive aspects of Philippines-China relations can establish social ownership.
As an interim measure, the Philippines and China shall seriously start talking about joint development in the South China Sea. Rather than determining which countries have ownership or rights to the disputed territories in the South China Sea, the Philippines and China should open their channels of communication to candidly consider the idea of joint development so that when they celebrate the annual anniversary of their ties in the future, they will share common accomplishments rather than exchange harsh words.