By Genalyn Kabiling
BEIJING – The Philippines is hoping the renewed tension in the disputed South China Sea would ease when President Duterte meets Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing this Thursday.
Philippine Ambassador to China Jose Santiago Sta. Romana said the two leaders are expected to tackle the state of bilateral relations, including the situation in the South China Sea and the country’s concerns in the West Philippine Sea.
The upcoming meeting between Duterte and Xi comes after the Philippine protested the reported swarming of Chinese vessels near Pag-asa Island, located in the West Philippine Sea.
“Usually when the two leaders meet, they do a general review of the bilateral — the state of bilateral relations. They exchanged views on regional and international issues. And of course, South China Sea is a major concern in terms of our bilateral relationship, as well as in terms of the region,” he said in an interview.
Asked if the President’s meeting with XI would help ease the conflict in Pag-asa island, Sta. Romana said: “That is our hope. That is our goal to ease the tension in the West Philippine Sea, to maintain peace and stability in the area, to avoid miscalculation, to prevent conflict.”
The government earlier filed a diplomatic protest over reports that more than 200 Chinese vessels have sailed near Pag-Asa island, located in the West Philippine Sea, in the first quarter of the year.
The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said the presence of the Chinese vessels near and around Pag-asa and other maritime features in the Kalayaan Island Group was illegal, asserting the country’s sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the area.
According to Sta. Romana, the two countries have agreed to resolve the maritime dispute through diplomatic negotiations. He said they intend to manage the dispute so it will not turn into a “crisis” and an “obstacle to the development of areas of cooperation such as trade and investments.
“We want to resolve, to deal with them through diplomacy so that it will not be a crisis point and so that we can resolve this slowly over time. Sovereignty issue as you know can take years, if not decades many generations,” he said.
“In the meantime though, the key is not to lose what you’re holding onto. And to gain access if you lost — whatever you have lost. And at the same time, to make sure that this underlying difference in sovereignty does not become an obstacle to developing relations,” he said.
In dealing with the South China Sea dispute, Sta. Romana said the Philippine government has learned the lesson from the 2012 Panatag shoal standoff to stay cool and stick to diplomacy. He said the government’s main goal includes avoiding conflict, keeping the supply lines open, and ensuring Filipinos’ access to fishing in the region.
“The lesson of Scarborough is, keep cool, stick to diplomacy, don’t withdraw and keep talking,” he said, citing that “diplomacy is the first line of defense.”
He said they were also following President Duterte’s preferred method of “face-to-face conversation” with China in dealing with the dispute.
“Don’t let another power talk on your behalf, broker a deal that you cannot verify. You have to do it yourself and talk to them directly. So that’s what we’re trying to avoid, a loss of any territory that we are — that is under our control, hold on to what we have,” he added.
Sta. Romana acknowledged that the country lost control over the Panatag shoal when it pulled out its ship in the area during a standoff with Chinese vessels years ago. “We lost control. And so now it’s the Chinese Coast Guards that’s in control,” he said.
But when Duterte assumed office in 2016 and held talks with Xi, Sta. Romana said the President achieved a “provisional” agreement to keep Scarborough shoal “the way it is, unreclaimed.”
“So far, it’s been holding. There are challenges, there are issues but at least keep it unreclaimed, preserve it as a fishing reserve and that our traditional access, our traditional fishing rights be respected. And that is what we’re trying to maintain in Scarborough,” he said.
He noted that the two nations also agreed to keep Sandy Cay, a recently emerged feature in the South China Sea, unoccupied.
“This is really the root of this issue right now. And we hope that this can slowly be managed in such a way that you deescalate the situation and it becomes less of a flashpoint,” he said.