‘Dealing with China not like haggling in Divisoria’

Senators call on the Philippine government to consider the implications of a Chinese offer not to submit its pleading in its arbitration case against Beijing

‘WEIGH IMPLICATIONS.’ Senators call on the Philippine government to seriously consider the implications of a Chinese offer not to submit its pleading in its arbitration case against Beijing. File 2012 photo of Chinese surveillance ships off Scarborough Shoal by DFA/Philippine Navy/AFP

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – Senators called on the government to proceed with caution amid a Chinese offer to stop the Philippines from submitting a key document in its arbitration case on the South China Sea.

Lawmakers said the Philippines must carefully weigh the offer against national interest and ensure any decision is consistent with Manila’s foreign policy.

The senators responded to a Rappler report that China offered the Philippines concessions in exchange for not submitting a written pleading or memorial to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea by the March 30 deadline.

Coursed through a lawmaker who acted as a backdoor negotiator, the offer included the mutual withdrawal of ships from the disputed Scarborough Shoal (Panatag Shoal to the Philippines) and more investments.

Senator Gregorio Honasan II, a former rebel soldier, told Rappler that the government must answer key questions in decision-making. He said entering into a deal with the rising superpower is unlike shopping at Manila’s Chinatown.

“Will it move us forward? Is it mutually beneficial to China, the Philippines, and other claimant countries? If we are to avoid a confrontation, we must come up with a win-win situation. Our foreign policy must be clear. It’s not about withdrawing ships. This is not Divisoria. This is not haggling or bartering. Our long-term national interest must be clear,” he said on Thursday, February 27.

Honasan raised other factors that he said the government must consider.

“Does it buy us time? Will it reduce or precipitate or complicate the situation there? You cannot weigh that offer or decide it in a vacuum. The foreign policy must be clear.”

Senator Loren Legarda, vice chairperson of the Senate defense committee, said the offer is a starting point for negotiations and shows there is leeway for cooperation.

“All efforts to arrive at a peaceful resolution is most welcome at this time. It is hoped that restraint and a greater sense of responsibility to peace will reign over rising tensions,” Legarda told Rappler.

Senator Pia Cayetano also weighed in on the issue on her Facebook page. 

“I am always one for peaceful negotiations. But in this case, where we already have a case pending, any offer to negotiate should not impair the exercise of our legal rights which we are rightfully pursuing before the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea.” 

Senate foreign relations committee chairperson Miriam Defensor Santiago and defense committee head Antonio Trillanes IV did not respond to requests for comment.

On Wednesday, Malacañang denied knowledge of the offer but said the Philippines will proceed with the submission of the memorial and has a “solid case” based on the rule of law.

Tensions between the Philippines and China again simmered after the Philippines protested a January 27 incident where a Chinese surveillance ship used a water cannon on Filipino fishermen near the Scarborough Shoal. China rejected the protest and asserted its claim on the shoal.

China claims virtually the whole South China Sea, believed to hold major oil and gas deposits and home to some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. The Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Taiwan also have claims to the sea, which Manila calls the West Philippine Sea.

‘PH should assess international deals’

Honasan backed the stance of the Philippine government to deal with China on a multilateral basis, and to bring the territorial dispute to an international tribunal.

As China flexes its military and economic muscle, he said the Philippines must assess its relations with its allies and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

“We should look at ASEAN configurations and conduct a performance audit of all bilateral, multilateral, security and economic arrangements globally so we will find out if in the case of the US, despite the Mutual Defense Treaty and Visiting Forces Agreement, if they will really come to our aid either in the negotiating table or God forbid, a confrontation,” he said.

Honasan welcomed the Philippines’ efforts to strengthen ties with Japan, which is also engaged with a territorial dispute with China in the East China Sea.

“I’m glad Japan is on board because we have to negotiate from a position of parity or strength, not a position of weakness.”

Senator Francis Escudero on Wednesday expressed support for the Philippines’ tack of calling for international support despite China’s preference to deal with the dispute on a bilateral basis.

Despite criticism of Manila’s weak military, the Senate finance committee chairman said the Aquino administration allocated the highest budget for the modernization of the Armed Forces of the Philippines compared to past governments. 

‘Look at policy implications quietly’

The lawmakers noted that the Philippines stepped up its rhetoric against China, with President Benigno Aquino III recently comparing Beijing to Nazi Germany’s annexation of Sudetenland in 1938. China criticized the Philippines for the remark.

“You cannot blame the President. He’s the president, he speaks for all of us,” Honasan said. “But we should separate the rhetoric from the work being done.”

The senator said the dispute has significant global implications, comparing the Scarborough Shoal to a tollbooth to illustrate his point. The shoal lies 220 kilometers off Luzon and about 650 kilometers from China’s Hainan Island. It is within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. 

“That’s an international sea and air lane. Imagine if China puts up a tollbooth and asks everyone to pay and in our territory, at that. We should be the ones to own the toll booth and earn from it,” Honasan said.

He added that the executive branch must make crafting foreign policy inclusive, involving Congress, the judiciary and other stakeholders in the process.

“Let’s look at serious policy implications quietly. What’s happening is there is squabbling in media. That’s not the way to approach foreign policy negotiations.” Rappler.com