THE Philippine government’s rejection of bilateral talks with China is a wasted opportunity for both parties to resolve the West Philippine Sea dispute and reinvigorate the relationship between the two countries.
This was the reaction of Senator Ferdinand “Bongbong” R. Marcos Jr. to the government’s rejection of China’s proposal for the two countries to hold bilateral talks to resolve the maritime row.
“China opened the door and we shut it. The Chinese said let’s talk and we snubbed them. It’s an opportunity to resolve our differences but we failed to take advantage of it,” Marcos said.
Speaking at the Kapihan sa Manila Bay media forum, Marcos stressed that the Philippines is not going to lose anything by accepting the Chinese invitation to a dialogue on the West Philippine Sea dispute.
“So talk, and tell them: we are not happy with what you are doing and we do not agree with what you are doing. But the next thing you say is: how do we fix this?” said Marcos, vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.
Marcos has called on the government to agree to or initiate bilateral talks with China when it aggressively started erecting structures in areas the Philippines is claiming as either parts of its sovereign territory or within its 200 nautical (370 km) mile exclusive economic zone.
Marcos pointed out that there are three ways to resolve the dispute: by war, adjudication, or multilateral/bilateral agreements.
“We do not want war. Arbitration is not one that is going to be recognized by the Chinese. So it has to be negotiations,” Marcos said.
In pushing for negotiations, he cited the so-called “Cod Wars” or the dispute over rich fishing grounds between the United Kingdom and Spain in the early 80s. At the height of the tensions, war ships even rammed fishing boats.
“In the end, what did they do? They came to a bilateral agreement to share and now they are working on that basis,” Marcos said.
Marcos also reiterated his suggestion that the government adopt the strategy of back channel diplomacy and persuaded Filipino nationals to talk with their friends and connections in China on ways to resolve the disputes.
“We should talk to China bilaterally because it is still the best option. Our Filipino businessmen can also help by reaching out to their Chinese counterparts and friends in China and try to come up with a solution that will persuade both governments to, at least, sit down and negotiate, or at most, resolve the problem outright,” he said.
Marcos said rejecting China’s offer to hold bilateral talks with the Philippines is limiting the government’s strategic options to stop China from antagonizing not only the Philippines, but all the other claimant-countries in the West Philippine Sea.
“We should not be snobbish. I can’t see any reason at all why we are not talking to China. On the contrary, there are more than enough obvious reasons why we should talk to superpower China,” he said.
He acknowledged that with China’s own geo-political interests and its concern over the presence of the Americans in the area, bilateral talks between Manila and Beijing “is not going to be easy.”
“We're strategically important to any great power in Asia-Pacific, but we have to play that role even-handedly. We have to stop thinking in terms of kakampi ko ang Chinese, kakampi ko ang Kano. Ang kakampi mo lang Pilipino,” Marcos said.
“What is the national interest, what is good for the Philippines, that's all that we have to be thinking about,” he added.