PH on China row: We can ‘isolate’ maritime disputes from trade ties

MANILA, Philippines – The Philippines is willing to “isolate” its maritime dispute with China over the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) and continue its “strong” bilateral relationship in other areas like trade and investment.

DFA spokesperson Charles Jose made the statement in a #TalkThursday interview with Rappler’s Chay Hofileña on Tuesday, May 6.

“It is our position that the Philippines is willing to segregate this issue of maritime dispute and deal with it separately and at the same time continue to strengthen and expand our other areas of cooperation with China,” Jose said.

Jose noted the continued strong relationship between the Philippines and China in the areas of trade and investment, people-to-people contact, cultural cooperation, and education.

“It would still be in our interest and also in China’s interest to continue working together,” he added.

Jose echoed the statement of President Benigno Aquino III at his joint press conference with US President Barack Obama in Manila on April 28. Aquino had said that the West Philippine Sea is the “only sore point” in the country’s relationship with China.

There have been economic sanctions from China, however. During the standoff in Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal) off the coast of Zambales, China imposed stricter quarantine rules on Philippine banana exports. This affected Philippine banana growers but Jose said they “survived despite the sanctions.”

In August 2013, Aquino was forced to cancel a trip to China to attend the 10th China-Asean Expo in Nanning due to unusual conditions for the China trip set by Beijing.

US balancing act

The DFA spokesperson also said the Philippines  recognizes the “balancing act” of the US in terms of its relationship with China, vis a vis the territorial dispute in the West Philippine Sea involving its strongest ally in the region.

“The US is also trying to balance its position in this case. They have a treaty with the Philippines; at the same time they have also a very strong relationship and engagement with China,” said Jose.

He said this would explain the statements of the US president during his Manila visit last week on the dispute.

In a joint press conference with president Aquino, Obama highlighted his support for the peaceful resolution of maritime disputes in the region. He said it is not the goal of US to counter China but to make sure that international law prevails.

The statement disappointed some Filipinos who expected a categorical statement from the US president on how the US will help the Philippines should an armed conflict erupt in the area.

In the same day, however, Obama changed his tune and gave a stronger statement, asserting Washington's “ironclad commitment,” under the Mutual Defense Treaty, to defend the Philippines against external armed attacks.

Jose also noted the strong statements of support coming from high-ranking US officials including Defense chief Chuck Hagel and US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russel.

Trans-Pacific Partnership

For the US, the pivot to Asia is not only about military ties but also economic relationships. (READ: Obama's Asia pivot 'relevant to every American's job)

The US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) seeks the free flow of goods and services among signatory countries. Tariffs will be reduced and standards in intellectual property, environment protection, and labor rights, among others, will be established.

For the Philippines, TPP membership may require the painful process of constitutional change.  Constitutional restrictions on foreign ownership in the country have been repeatedly raised by business groups as a deterrent to foreign investments but Aquino has been firmly against constitutional amendments during his term.

The trade and finance departments are pushing for the country's TPP membership  to avoid losing the country's share of the US market to participating neighbors in the region. (READ: Aquino presses for PH inclusion in Pacific trade deal)

The Philippines is still studying the potential impact of TPP membership on local industries.

“We were among the first countries to be invited. We need internal study first if our industries would be competitive," Jose said.

Jose said there is no pressure from the US for the Philippines to join TPP. 

EDCA for regional security

Jose also defended the controversial Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). (Read the full document here.)

“The signing of the agreement is our positive contribution to maintaining regional peace and security,” he said

Jose said the goal behind EDCA is to modernize the armed forces and strengthen its capabilities in terms of responding to external threats and natural disasters.

EDCA allows the increased presence of US troops in the Philippines, enables them to preposition defense and disaster response equipment inside military bases, and allows them to construct or upgrade facilities inside the bases. (READ: 3 to 5 military bases eyed for US use)

Jose said the US has earmarked increased assistance for the Philippine Navy, too.

The Philippines asked for US military assistance in the wake of escalating tension in the West Philippine Sea. The request coincides with the US strategy of rebalancing to Asia.

“We support that strategy (pivot to Asia). We are helping them achieve that objective,” Jose added.

Arbitration case is last recourse

In its dealing with its dispute with China, the Philippines pursued 3 tracks. On March 30, it filed an abitration case before an international arbitral court seeking for the recognition, among others, of the country’s 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

The two flashpoints in the dispute – Panatag Shoal off Zambales and Ayungin Shoal off Palawan – are less than 200 nautical miles from the country’s shoreline.

It is not clear if the international arbitral court would require oral arguments first or if it would proceed to a decision.

“We are awaiting advice as to the next step. We don’t have a timeframe,” Jose said.

The legal track is the last recourse for the Philippines, said Jose. It is a strategy that the Philippines pursued after concluding that earlier tracks have not been fruitful – the the diplomatic track to bilaterally address the issue and the political track to seek the help of ASEAN in fast-tracking a binding Code of Conduct in the disputed area.

“The last recourse is legal track. We are always guided by the principle of peaceful settlements of disputes,” Jose said. – Rappler.com