PRESIDENT Rodrigo Duterte is leaving for Beijing this week to attend the Belt and Road forum. Former Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario and his comrades are agitating for the President to raise the issue of Philippine sovereignty over the South China Sea when he meets Chinese President Xi Jinping. Such a proposal only shows the lack the knowledge and tactics in dealing with Beijing. Let us hope that President Duterte will not commit the same mistake which former President Noynoy Aquino and Secretary del Rosario committed in challenging the Chinese government on the South China Sea sovereignty issue instead of engaging in friendly dialogue.
It is a fact that before 2012, the Philippines had been effectively exercising sovereignty over that certain area in South China Sea which we claimed to be our territory. We reclaimed land in Pag-asa Island and other islets in the Kalayaan area. Every month, our navy and coast guards would arrest some Chinese fishermen fishing in the area which we considered as our exclusive economic zone, and towed their boats to Palawan or Zambales. The Chinese fishermen and their fishing boats would be released only after our local courts jailed them and imposed fines. On the other hand, although Beijing also claimed sovereignty over the same area, China did not reclaim any land and had never arrested any single Filipino fisherman during those years. It was only after Secretary del Rosario and President Aquino decided to bring the South China Sea issue to the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague towards the end of 2012 that China started to block Filipino fishermen from fishing in the Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal area. In 2013, China also started massive reclamation of islands in the disputed area. In effect, the Aquino administration had caused our country to lose our sovereignty over the West Philippine Sea as a consequence of Mr. del Rosario’s initiative in going to The Hague.
It was after President Duterte’s visit to Beijing in October 2016 that China promised not to reclaim any more land in the South China Sea, Filipino fishermen could also go back to fish in the Panatag Shoal area without any fear of harassment. President Duterte had won back Philippine sovereignty by friendly dialogue. Mr. del Rosario should learn from his own sad experience of diplomatic failure and stop giving ill advice and poisonous demands for President Duterte to repeat his mistake of confronting the Chinese government with an antagonistic attitude.
The Chinese government has been following Mao Zedong’s doctrine of “You don’t offend me, I will not offend you; you offend me, I will definitely retaliate.” With friendly talk, issues can be resolved amicably. But if we play hard, Beijing can be harder than we think. China does not recognize the arbitration of The Hague and no one can force Beijing to observe the 2016 decision of the tribunal. It will prove to be futile and even disastrous if President Duterte raises the issue when he visits Beijing this time.
Mr. del Rosario and his group will definitely question the loyalty of this author in writing this article. Allow me to say that I am one of the few Filipinos, and maybe the earliest, to argue face-to-face with a ranking Chinese government official in defending Philippine sovereignty over the South China Sea islands. I believe that I was also instrumental in brokering the deal that ended the Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal stand-off, only to be toppled by Secretary del Rosario after a few days (please refer to the article “Can we talk to China on West Philippine Sea?” printed in The Manila Times, June 2 to 5, 2016).