BEIJING, China—It may sound contradictory, but despite President Duterte’s shelving of the arbitral tribunal’s ruling on the South China Sea (SCS), this administration was actually able to improve bilateral relations with China and, at the same time, pursue Manila’s claims without antagonizing Beijing to the point of either severing diplomatic relations or going to war.
“Instead of the previous approach of putting the disputes at the center of the bilateral relations, the Duterte administration decided to separate it into two tracks: the contentious issues put on one track and the noncontentious issues put on the other track,” said Philippine Ambassador to China Jose Santiago L. Sta. Romana during an interview with this reporter on the invitation of the Communication University of China.
He added that the contentious issues are sovereignty, maritime jurisdiction, including the nine-dash line and the other claimants to the resource-rich area where $5 trillion worth of trade passes through.
The other contentious issues are the differences in the position of the Philippines and China on the arbitral tribunal decision which favors the Philippines but that China did not accept.
Aside from the Philippines and China, the other claimants are Taiwan, Brunei Darussalam, Malaysia and Vietnam.
“So because of this you have to deal with this separate tracks and use bilateral talks to deal with areas that you can discuss and, hopefully, resolve overtime. At the same time, you find areas of common interest where you can cooperate and on the whole, if you look at the past year, the paradox has been that the tribunal award—despite the differences on the two sides, from that time—particularly since the Duterte administration used a different approach, there’s been an improvement in bilateral relations.”
It has been a year since the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague handed an arbitral ruling that concluded that China’s “nine-dash line” in the South China Sea is “invalid” and that it does not have “historic rights” over the disputed region.
But one year after the ruling, the Duterte administration was blasted by critics, among them Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonio T. Carpio, who said, “The stunning victory became strangely orphan.”
“The Duterte administration refused to celebrate the ruling even though the ruling legally secured for the Philippines a vast maritime zone than the total land area of
the Philippines.” Carpio said he was “aghast” when Duterte announced last year that he was setting aside the PCA ruling to secure better economic relations with China.
On the other hand, former Solicitor General Florin T. Hilbay said the administration seems to have adopted a policy of defeatism and a mind-set of nonenforcement of the award.
“Filipinos haven’t seen any forward movement for the Philippines and there has been no pushback against China’s continued aggression,” he said, adding the first anniversary of the tribunal’s award marks a year of disappointment after the victory at The Hague.
At the height of the Philippines’s dispute with China, Filipino fishermen were barred from fishing in Scarborough Shoal and from entering Ayungin Shoal, where a contingent of the Armed Forces is stationed on a rusting ship.
“Now, by looking at areas where the two sides can find agreement, that has been resolved in the sense that there is now access for Filipino fishermen there,” Sta. Romana said.
“Whereas before, the supply lines to Ayungin Shoal to our soldiers in the ship, the Chinese had a blockade, and now that blockade has been lifted, so now the supply lines are open. The same is true for supply lines in Pag-asa and the other features that are under Philippine occupation. So on the whole, the tensions have eased.”
He said the Philippines’s strategy is to “basically try to stabilize the situation and to develop trust and confidence between the two sides.”
“There are still difference and challenges that remain, but this is where—like in the inaugural meeting of the bilateral mechanism—basically all the issues where touched, or at least brought up. Some of the differences have remained, but at least you are able to talk about it in amicable and civil manner.”
“So in this sense, we have made progress over the past year and basically where there is difference, we continue talking about it, and where there is no difference, to continue further developing relations that are mutually beneficial,” he added.
The envoy, however, said there is a whole range of noncontentious issues where the Philippines and China continue to engage, “such as in trade, economics, infrastructure, science, culture and the whole range of areas where you could cooperate but which were frozen in the past”.
“So the basic approach now is don’t let the disputes be an obstacle. What we are really doing is to fast-track when it comes to economics, trade, cultural, education and all these other areas, which were affected if you put the disputes at the center. It affects the whole atmosphere so the idea is to separate them.”
He added that this was the idea of bilateral mechanism that was inaugurated in May “to basically discuss issues, the sensitive issues where of concern to our side, as well as issues of concern to the Chinese side”.
Sta. Romana said, “If you cannot resolve the differences right away because there are differences that existed for quite some time, then at least you can try to manage the issue so you can ease the tensions in the South China Sea/West Philippine Sea.”
By this approach, the Philip-pines can at least find areas of cooperation, build confidence while still trying to discuss the issue.
“In other words, you try to combine principle and pragmatism. [The] principle [is] you don’t give up your claim, and you don’t abandon the tribunal award. Pragmatism because you know, there is a saying that you need two hands to clap, to shake hands; we’re not negotiating alone by ourselves.”
At the same time, Sta. Romana added that since the ruling one year ago, “the situation in the US, in the world, in the Philippines has changed.”
“And now with Marawi City, there is another unifying factor, the common struggle against extremism, and this is why the Chinese and the Philippines have decided to accept the military assistance from the Chinese and from other members of the international community.”
In this respect, the envoy said, China is willing to help insofar as the anti-extremism, antiterrorism struggle is concerned and, so far, as the antidrug campaign is concerned. He said that, in addition, there are more high-level exchanges now, “so at least we have restored all bilateral mechanisms; the two foreign ministries are talking again; the two coastguards have formed joint committees in areas where they can cooperate; and then in the coming months they will restore joint commission for defense and security.”
Following the restoration of dialogues between the two military establishments, Sta. Romana said there followed the joint trade commission, joint agricultural commission and joint fishery commission, “so the different areas where the different levels of government can at least hold talks to discuss differences, as well as areas where we can make progress”. He vehemently disagreed to the accusations that the administration’s soft approach to the Chinese has compromised the country’s claims to the South China Sea.
“I certainly don’t agree. No, because what we are trying to do is not to give us the claims and yet develop relations, and this is the goal of the Duterte administration. And if you look at it, I don’t think we have lost an inch of territory.”
On the contrary, Sta. Romana said the country has gained when the administration changed its tack toward China.
“Whereas before we didn’t have access to the Scarborough Shoal, now we have access. Before there were fears that the Chinese will reclaim Scarborough Shoal now the Chinese are saying they won’t build. There is a consensus to keep it as a maritime, as a fishery area. Whereas before we had a problem with Ayungin, the supply lines and the same with Pag-asa and now we were able to continue with the supplies.”
“So I don’t think we’ve lost an inch of territory, we have gained what we lost for so many years. We have regained some of the features or areas we don’t have access to.”
“So I think, basically, what we are trying to do is, hopefully, through this approach, is not only to defend what we have but to preserve what we have and, if possible, to regain what we have lost in the past,” he added.