MANILA, Philippines – In a last-ditch attempt to derail a historic case, China has offered the Philippines incentives such as the mutual withdrawal of ships from the disputed Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal, sources told Rappler.
China wants to stop the Philippines from submitting its written pleading, called a memorial, to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) by March 30, these sources said.
Asked for comment, the Chinese Embassy said it has “no information to offer” about this.
But former national security adviser Roilo Golez said China is “worried” about the memorial. “In fact, they’re even offering a carrot so that we don’t submit on the deadline,” he said.
The “carrot,” he said, is the offer to mutually withdraw from the shoal in the contested West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
Golez told Rappler he got this information from one of the back channels in the maritime dispute, but refused to reveal his source.
Watch this report below.
Panatag is now practically occupied by Chinese ships following a tense standoff in 2012 where the Philippines withdrew its ship. At least 3 Chinese coast guard ships are in the area, based on latest military reports. There are local and fishing vessels there too. (READ: PH military beefs up Scarborough)
A former congressman in touch with several sources on the dispute, Golez helped convene the West Philippine Sea Coalition, which stands “in dignified defiance of China.” In July 2013, the group even led a protest that forced the Chinese consulate to temporarily close “for security reasons.” (READ: Filipinos tell China: Bad feng shui to take what isn’t yours)
He is not alone in making the claim about China’s offer. Two insiders in government also confirmed this to Rappler.
China’s offer ‘not enough’
Behind the scenes, President Benigno Aquino III convened his entire Cabinet in the last week of January to discuss China’s offer, according to a source privy to government meetings held in relation to this. It was a closed-door session that the Palace did not announce.
Through a lawmaker who acted as a backdoor negotiator, China reportedly offered not only the mutual withdrawal from Panatag, but also more investments.
This issue divided the Cabinet. Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario stood by his position to pursue the case, the source said.
When asked if the Philippines is considering not to submit the memorial, another insider said, “At this time, no.”
This Palace source explained the Cabinet wasn’t happy with China’s offer to withdraw from Panatag. “With what’s on the table, there’s not enough.”
The issue, after all, “did not start there,” and is “just a manifestation of an earlier problem.”
The government’s other concern, according to the source, is that the offer came from a backdoor channel. It was possible that the negotiator talked to the wrong people.
The source said the Palace, however, is not completely closing its doors on China’s offer. To submit the memorial is Aquino’s choice in the end.
In any case, a senior government official said the situation “will get worse before it gets better.” “China is doing everything it can to make things difficult for us,” the official said.
The Philippines last year brought the territorial row before the ITLOS after it said it “has exhausted all political and diplomatic avenues for a peaceful negotiated settlement of its maritime dispute with China.”
In February 2013, China formally rejected the arbitral proceedings. But its refusal will not necessarily impede the proceedings, according to Annex VII of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). (READ: Top maritime judge to hear PH case vs China)
China stresses negotiations
Chinese Embassy spokesman Zhang Hua told Rappler he has “no information to offer” about the reported proposal to withdraw from Panatag. (READ: China envoy arrives as PH deadline looms)
“China stays committed to solving disputes through negotiations with the countries directly concerned,” Zhang said.
He added, “The Chinese side has actually repeatedly expounded on its position regarding the Philippines’ arbitration on the South China Sea, and our position [of rejecting arbitration] remains unchanged.”
Despite this, the Philippines said it is bent on submitting its written pleading. Besides, deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte on Wednesday, February 26, said she has “no information” about incentives offered by Beijing.
In a media briefing on Tuesday, February 25, Department of Foreign Affairs spokesman Raul Hernandez also said the Philippines is “preparing” to submit its memorial by March 30.
The Philippines’ lawyer in its case against China, Paul Reichler, said the memorial “will be submitted to the arbitral tribunal on time, that is, on or before March 30, 2014.”
“I am aware of no reason why this would not happen,” Reichler said in an e-mail to Rappler.
Strong case vs ‘sign of weakness’
When asked how difficult this case is compared to others, this lawyer of more than two decades said: “Every case is different, and presents different challenges and opportunities, so I would not want to compare the Philippines/China case to any other.”
“I will simply say that the entire legal team that has been engaged by the Philippines believes that the Philippines has a strong case, both on jurisdiction and on the merits,” Reichler said. (READ: PH lawyer on China: Being ‘int’l outlaw’ has its price)
In contrast, Golez said, China’s offer is “a sign of weakness, because they’re worried.”
“Why should we reward them for withdrawing from our own territory, from our own exclusive economic zone? They should not be rewarded,” he said.
“Number two, if we don’t file according to the deadline, that will diminish our standing in the ITLOS. Because if we’re delayed, that means we don’t hold enough documents, right? So that might weaken us. It’s like an ordinary case. When you ask for a postponement, that means that you lack the materials, and you still need materials,” he added in a mix of English and Filipino.
Deciding not to file the memorial, Golez explained, “might affect us irreversibly.”
“If they withdraw today, they can come back tomorrow. There’s no parity in the possible exchange of concessions,” he said. – with reports from Natashya Gutierrez/Rappler.com