TWO years ago, “citizen” Chito Sta. Romana was asked: “If you were president of the Philippines for just one day, what would you want to change?”
“I want to amend and improve our policy with China,” he quickly retorted, “because that’s my forte and expertise.”
“But now,” he pointed out, “it is going in the right direction. I hope that our country will have a more truly independent foreign policy, so that we can be friends equally with the US and China, and gain economic benefits from both.”
Now Philippine ambassador to China, Jose Santiago Sta. Romana is one of the authorities of our foreign-policy thrusts.
This reporter had the chance to interview him at the Philippine Embassy in Beijing after accepting an invitation from the Communication University of China to attend a workshop, entitled “Understanding China”.
We exchanged business cards, and this reporter found an unfamiliar name on it.
“The Department of Foreign Affairs [DFA] said I cannot use ‘Chito’ in my business card,” he volunteered.
“My family is from Cabanatuan and our home is just 15 minutes from the church and plaza where Gen. Antonio Luna was killed. That plaza is now called Plaza Lucero, named after our maternal grandfather Sen. Santiago Lucero. My real name is Santiago; I was named after him,” he explained as he welcomed us into a large receiving room.
NOBODY deserves a more appropriate appointment than Sta. Romana, an award-winning journalist who practically spent nearly his entire life in China.
He sought asylum there as a 24-year-old visiting student when strongman Ferdinand E. Marcos declared martial law on September 1972, with the fear of being arrested if he comes home for leading student activism.
During his extended stay there, he had witnessed five years of Mao Tse Tung’s rule, the emergence of Deng Xiaoping and the eventual rise of China as a world power.
Sta. Romana covered the Tiananmen Square demonstration as producer and later on as bureau chief of ABC News. In 1999 he was part of the network-wide special program on the millennium, which included the report, “Midnight in Shanghai”.
Aired on Good Morning America, it won him an Emmy Award.
Another accolade came from the Overseas Press Club of America for their coverage of the 2008 earthquake. Others included an investigative report on China’s AIDS village, which bagged him an Emmy nomination.
He is a double major in Economics and Commerce from De La Salle University, and is armed with a master’s degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Massachusetts.
Arbitral Tribunal decision
We probed his thoughts on the Philippines’s Arbitral Tribunal victory regarding the South China Sea (SCS)/West Philippine Sea dispute, after the landmark decision was made.
“It’s been a year since the Arbitral Tribunal award, but [since then], basically, there has been a paradigm shift—a basic change in approach in handling relations with China. 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.”
He added that the contentious issues were put on a separate track, with the noncontentious ones on another.
“The contentious issues, of course, [are those] of sovereignty, of maritime jurisdiction, including the so-called nine-dash line. [Another dimension was] added: the difference of positions of the Philippines and China on the Arbitral Tribunal decision. We expressed our views to abide and comply with it; the Chinese does not accept it. So those are the contentious issues.”
“However”, he went on, “there is a whole range of noncontentious issues where there are no differences: trade, economics, infrastructure, science, culture—the whole range of areas where [both sides] could cooperate, but were frozen in the past.”
The Filipino ambassador continued: “So when you put the disputes at the center, the basic approach now is not to let the disputes be an obstacle to developing. What we are really doing is to fast-track [dealings in] economics, trade, culture, education and all other areas affected when the disputes are [in the middle]. Said disputes affect the whole atmosphere, so the idea is to separate them,” he explained.
China, with its huge land and nautical area, has border rows with 18 countries, including Japan, Vietnam, India, Nepal, North Korea, South Korea, Bhutan, Taiwan, Kazakhstan, Lao PDR, Brunei Darussalam, Tajikistan, Cambodia, Kyrgyzstan, Malaysia, Mongolia and Afghanistan, aside from the Philippines.
(Note: China has accepted the Philippines’s two-pronged approached idea addressing the SCS issue because they acceded to their paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, who said: “Let us put this issue aside for the time being. Maybe people of the next generation will be smarter than us and can find a practical solution.”)
The envoy said that, if one looks at different countries that have dealt with China peacefully in the past two or three decades, there are two examples: Vietnam; and the other, the former Soviet Union, or Russia.
“In the case of the Vietnamese, if you count from the 1970s, they have been talking about how to delineate their land border and their Gulf of Tonkin. They went through stages at first, and it was a hard approach. Vietnam was then supported by the Soviet Union, which led to border clashes.”
“They had conflicts, and the Vietnamese only changed their position when the Soviet Union collapsed. There was no longer any support, and what did they do? They decided to negotiate with the Chinese,” he explained.
Sta. Romana shared that it still took almost 10 years when Vietnam finally reached an agreement on the borders.
“Since our detente with China, fishermen could now fish around the Scarborough Shoal, and we are now allowed to provide supplies to our troops stationed in Ayungin Shoal. The same is true for supply lines in the Pagasa group of islands and others under Philippine jurisdiction,” he said.
Since then, the tensions have eased, while the two countries basically try to stabilize the situation, as well as develop trust and confidence between them.
“There are still differences and challenges that remain, but this is [what it is] like in the inaugural meeting of the bilateral mechanism: Basically all of the issues were touched, or at least brought up. [But] some of the differences have remained,” the Philippine diplomat to China added.
“But at least, we are able to talk about it in an amicable and civil manner. So in this sense, we have made progress over the past year. Where there are differences, we continue to talk about them; where there are no differences, we continue to further developing relations that are mutually beneficial.”
However, with the occupation of Marawi City by Muslim groups claiming links with the ISIS as well as the current political situation in the US under President Donald J. Trump, Sta. Romana said these issues have become factors to unite us more with China.
“This is why the Philippines has decided to accept military assistance from the Chinese and from other members of the international community.”
The envoy said the key is preparation, strategic patience, as well as a good negotiating team, “because the Chinese negotiate very seriously and it takes time; they will try to outlast you if possible. But if you try to force an issue, it will result in the escalation of tension, and possibly conflict, as we have learned from history in the past 30 years.”
“The question is for us to learn from it. I think what we are doing now is a wiser course as it is based on the lesson of history of dealing with China, with countries that have successfully dealt with it.”
He said it does not mean there will be no more problems because, although the Vietnamese were able to solve the matter inside the Gulf of Tonkin, they have a bigger problem now in the Paracels within the South China Sea (SCS).
“It is much more challenging because it involves not only bilateral issues, but also strategic [ones]; the issue of a dominant power and a rising power.”
He said the drawback is that, if we are to follow an approach, “[or] try to delink the strategic rivalry happening from the bilateral differences that we have with China from the bilateral relations, if you combine it as I think we did from the past couple of years, at least it gave an impression that we have, indeed, succeeded with it, when the Chinese were accusing us of being a proxy for the US, or being a ‘Trojan horse’ of the rebalance strategy,” he said, going into the nitty-gritty of a complex issue.
“And with what we now have, what President Duterte calls ‘a new independent foreign policy’, there are several components to it.”
He added one is to redress an over-dependent attitude with the US in the past.
“So we are trying to separate our foreign policy, at least, from the US. It does not mean that we are abandoning military alliance with the US; it just means we have to navigate the course that is proceeding from our own fundamental national interest.”
The second component “is to have friendly relations with China, but it does not mean we will have an alliance with it. We are still maintaining our independent posture.”
“We stand together where there are common interests. But we still have our differences, and they remain as challenges.”
The third is the development of relations with Russia.
“But underlying all these, the biggest and most important component is, really, that we start with our immediate neighborhood—within Asean centrality.”
STA. ROMANA, who has a solid grasp of geopolitics, having a master’s degree in international relations at Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Massachusetts, with seminars on the United Nation Convention on the Law of the Sea, said among the aces up our sleeves is “maintaining good relations with all powers, including Japan”.
“The basic guiding tenet is to be friends to all, and enemy toward none.”
“And it is in this context that we try to navigate the complicated and troubled waters that we find ourselves in in the SCS/West Philippine Sea,” he said.
The gentleman from Nueva Ecija also noted that, at times, there would be “course corrections”, “because you can never really measure exactly an equidistant of a foreign policy, but you try to maintain what at least would give you diversification in terms of what would benefit the Philippines and its national interests.”
He added our countrymen might get confused because it is as if we are flip-flopping, but insists it is really, as he said, “course correction, as you try to find your way”.
“[T]he basic underlining idea is still to maintain our historic, friendly relations with the US, to develop relations with China despite differences in claims, to continue developing ties with Japan, to maintain Asean centrality as the foundation, and open relations with India and to have good relations with all the major powers and our immediate neighbors.”
“That is the guiding idea behind the foreign policy right now.”
Sta. Romana declined to comment to what would happen if the Chinese had completely turned the disputed islands into impregnable fortresses, in preparation for an invasion from the US and its close allies, Japan and South Korea.
China had learned its lessons from the past, when the British invaded via the SCS to open up its market to opium as foreigners’ ships went up the Pearl River to Beijing.
The expansive Oriental country maintains that based on its long history, the West Philippine Sea belongs to them, and despite the International Tribunal’s ruling, would never budge to give up an inch of territory, including the Senkaku Island (Diaoyu in Chinese), which is also being claimed by Japan.
According to Sta. Romana, the impact of high-level diplomacy the Philippines has chosen after Duterte’s pivot to China opened up the way for the Chinese to reciprocate “goodwill with goodwill”.
“If we respond by forcing an issue, they will also defend what they think is their position. [What we are doing is] the reverse of that: the benign cycle. If [that is our] approach, we give chance to peace and diplomacy. There will be peaceful dividends for the Philippines—the basic approach that we are following.”
He continued, “This is why we should link the strategic and the bilateral issues. When two elephants are charging against each other, we do not want to be in the middle of that conflict.”
Our China-based diplomat emphasized, “What we want is our own [country’s] survival and our own development; to preserve peace and stability.”