MANILA, Philippines – It was the April 2012 standoff in Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal and the resulting occupation by the Chinese Coast Guard of the disputed territory located off the coast of Zambales that forced the Philippines to bring the maritime dispute to international arbitration.
While a word war over the West Philippines Sea (South China Sea) escalated, security officials of the two countries met in Beijing a year later to assure each other that ties between the two countries remained strong.
A memorandum of understanding (MOU) on defense cooperation binds the Philippines and China as defense partners. The 4th Defense and Security Talks held in Beijing is a fulfillment of one of the commitments under the relatively unknown MOU that Rappler is revisiting in light of the growing tension in the West Philippines Sea.
Defense Undersecretary Honorio Azcueta told his Chinese counterparts in 2013 that the sea dispute is “not the totality of PH-China relations, hence engagement with China should be maintained.” (Read the defense department’s press release here.)
They talked about defense and military cooperation, exchanges of military delegation, and collaboration in non-traditional security issues, such as humanitarian assistance and disaster response.
While Malacañang as well as foreign affairs and security officials strongly protest China’s aggression, they have publicly echoed – although rarely picked up by the media – the official country position that Azcueta told his counterparts in Beijing. (READ: We can 'isolate' maritime disputes from trade ties)
Open lines of communication
Signed in 2004 by the two countries’ defense departments, the relatively unknown defense cooperation agreement seeks to “strengthen and expand” ties. It guarantees “mutual respect for each other’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity” and “peaceful coexistence as set forth in the United Nations charter and other universally recognized norms of the international law.”
The MOU is focused on the following activities:
Open lines of communication between Manila and Beijing have been crucial in keeping the maritime disputes from blowing up, Defense Assistant Secretary for Strategic Assessment Raymund Quilop told Rappler in an interview.
“We have good relations with China in a sense that the line of communication between the defense departments of the two countries is very much open,” he said.
What purpose does it serve when China continues to step up activities in disputed territories? (READ: PH says China likely building military base in Spratlys)
Quilop answered: “We’re not going to war."
“The possibility is always there. That is the reason why we need measures to avoid these things from turning into conflict or further escalating,” Quilop added.
These lines of communication – while unsuccessful in stopping China's activities in the West Philippines Sea – are important as a means to help contain the conflict.
“The situation would be much worse if the two defense establishments are no longer talking. That has always been the shared sense of both defense ministers,” he added.
Thus, inspite of the escalating tension, China is donating engineering equipment to the Office of Civil Defense and the Philippine military is sending officials to China’s National Defense University. In the aftermath of Yolanda, China also sent a hospital ship.
While the conflict has caused many Filipinos to have negative sentiment toward China and expect stronger reaction from their government, Quilop said it is important for the people to understand that what appears to be a hot and cold relationship is a careful balancing act.
The open line of communications keep the navies from going to a war, but the strong statements of the Philippines are a necessary international pronouncement that it does not accept China’s claims and activities.
“The purpose really is to put it on record. On record, we have not default accepted their claim,” Quilop explained.
“Because if you don’t protest, later on the other party could claim: 'You did not protest. You just let it go,'” he added.
At the same time, the Philippine Navy is modernizing to achieve what it calls a “minimum credible defense” to prepare for eventualities that closed-door talks and international bodies cannot prevent.
And it signs a new agreement to increase the presence of US troops in the Philippines and allows them to preposition defense assets, likely in a naval detachment nearest the West Philippines Sea. (READ: Construction begins in 'US base' Oyster bay and How far will the US go to defend the Philippines?)
Aquino and China
Philippines and China were off to a good start under the administration of President Benigno Aquino III. Former Chinese Ambassador Liu Jinchao was the second foreign dignatary following former US Ambassador Harry Thomas Jr to visit President Aquino at his residence in Times Street to recognize his victory in the 2010 presidential elections even before the official canvassing of votes began.
They spoke about the controversies involving China that haunted the former Arroyo administration, the disputed Kalayaan Group of Islands, and expanding country ties. Aquino would visit Beijing himself in 2011 and then declare with former President Hu Jintao 2012 and 2013 as the Years of Friendly Exchange for the Philippines and China.
Ironically, the standoff happened on the first year of friendship. Manila officials were then cautioning each other from overreacting, believing that aggression had something to do with the elections and was thus temporary.
But it wasn't. Two years later, the situation had gotten worse. The Chinese Coast Guard has not left Panatag and uses water cannons to drive away Filipino fishermen. The situation is also sticky in Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal, guarded by a handful of Filipino Marines stationed in a grounder World War II warship. (READ: Troops fear 'miscalculation' in next mission to Ayungin)
Incidents with Vietnam, where ships are rammed and sunk, serve as a warning. (READ: 'If China can break off Vietnam, they've won South China Sea')
No to bilateral talks
The Philippines has filed its case before an United Nations-backed arbitral tribunal, seeking the recognition of its 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNLCOS), an agreement that both the Philippines and China signed.
China has refused to participate in the international arbitration, however, insisting on returning to the cozier relationship under the previous Arroyo administration, which agreed to the controversial Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking (JMSU) with China and Vietnam.
President Aquino has dismissed the bilateral track, insisting on the implementation of the UNCLOS.
“We’re coming from two different frameworks. But there is still a shared sense, I think, that one, there is a need to manage the situation. And two, it will be settled in peaceful manner,” Quilop said.
Quilop said the search is on for a third option. The two countries try to keep the peace by keeping the communication lines open, holding on to their positions but without precluding other options.
“It is not a zero-sum game. When you negotiate things, it is not either one of the parties giving in. The idea is to come up with a mutually acceptable solution to both parties,” explained Quilop.
The peaceful resolution of the conflict or the possiblity of war depends on a lot of moving parts – talks, international pressure, US intervention, and others including internal situation in China. One of these factors might work in favor of the Philippines keeping its territories in the West Philippines Sea or maybe none. – Rappler.com