by Roy C. Mabasa
The Philippines will stick to its method of “delinking” its territorial dispute with China over the West Philippine Sea/South China Sea from the other aspects of their relationship where there are no conflict– trade, economic, tourism, education, and culture, according to the country’s ambassador-designate to Beijing.
In fact, isolating the issue has been the Duterte administration’s “weapon of choice” to ease the tensions generated by the long-running territorial row and to calm frayed nerves following the ruling issued by the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration on the West Philippine Sea dispute last year, veteran journalist and China analyst Jose Santiago “Chito” Sta. Romana pointed out during the Tapatan sa Aristocrat media forum.
Sta. Romana, the former Beijing bureau chief for the news division of the American Broadcasting Company, was appointed by Malacañang as the Philippines’ top diplomat to China last Sept. 28. Once confirmed by the Commission on Appointments, he will serve as the country’s envoy to China with concurrent jurisdiction over North Korea and Mongolia.
“What we’re trying to do is to delink it (the West Philippine Sea dispute), to discuss it in a separate group like in a bilateral consultative mechanism that is to be set up under the joint statement last October,” said the Emmy award-winning journalist who has lived and worked in China for more than three decades.
He stressed that the dispute will not serve as an obstacle in terms of developing the relations.
“We will separate it so that we grow on separate track,” said Sta. Romana. “The issues which have no dispute we can fast-track.”
He also noted that the arbitral ruling on the territorial conflict has been the subject of intense interest on both sides.
But while the Philippines’ position, as articulated by President Duterte, is to maintain, defend, and uphold the historic ruling, China remains steadfast in its refusal to recognize the decision of the United Nations-backed tribunal, he stressed.
“So there’s a difference of opinion,” said Sta. Romana. “And there’s a problem because there is no enforcement mechanism. If you want to force it, it will lead to the road of confrontation.”
In order to iron this out, the former president of the Philippine Association of Chinese Studies (PACS), a network of the country’s leading China experts, emphasized that economic cooperation will be the main driver in Manila’s approach.
“The disputes will still be there and we will discuss it, deal with it but the point is, we will also be realistic that it may take time,” said Sta. Romana. “What we cannot solve right away we will try to manage so that at least what we can’t solve immediately we can at least solve one by one and manage the tensions resulting from it.”