MANILA, Philippines - A “very gradual warming up” of relations with China has begun and would likely continue as “ultra nationalist” sentiment in Beijing is likely to ease after a leadership change next month, President Aquino said yesterday.
“We hope these domestic pressures on China will be lessened after the transition, so we will have more room to negotiate and discuss in more reasonable terms and less ultra-nationalist terms,” Aquino told reporters.
“We are taking a wait-and-see attitude,” he added.
This developed as Filipino and Chinese foreign affairs officials are set to meet in Manila tomorrow to review existing cooperation and chart the direction of relations between the countries under the 18th Foreign Ministry Consultations.
Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Erlinda Basilio heads the Philippine panel, while her counterpart is Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Fu Ying.
Tensions over competing claims to parts of the South China Sea and West Philippine Sea escalated in April when Chinese maritime surveillance vessels arrived in Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal to prevent Philippine authorities from arresting Chinese poachers caught with illegal harvest of endangered corals, live sharks, and giant clams. The Chinese vessels have not left the shoal since then and have declared the area China’s territory called Huangyan Island. Panatag Shoal, also locally called Bajo de Masinloc, is only 124 nautical miles from Zambales and is well within the country’s 200-mile exclusive economic zone.
As diplomatic relations plummeted, the Philippines accused China of “duplicity” and “intimidation” in pressing its claims to large areas in the West Philippine Sea.
Some organs of China’s state-run media also called for war against the Philippines, while the Chinese government established a new city and military garrison overseeing disputed territories in the South China Sea.
Aquino said the domestic pressures in China ahead of its once-in-a-decade transition of power had affected efforts to improve diplomatic relations to a level seen before the dispute flared.
China claims nearly all of the South China Sea and West Philippine Sea, even waters close to the coasts of neighboring countries.
Chinese President Hu Jintao is expected to hand over power as head of the ruling Communist Party to Vice President Xi Jinping during a congress starting on Nov. 8. But Hu will remain the country’s president until next March.
No back-channel talks
President Aquino also said there are no back-channel talks with China on the territorial issues – at least for now.
He also denied taking a bilateral approach to addressing the problem.
“Currently there are no back-channel efforts,” he told members of the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines at the Manila Hotel.
Earlier, Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV was found to be involved in back-channel talks with Beijing, with the Palace’s blessings.
“That is not correct,” he said when asked if Trillanes’ China mission was an indication of the President’s openness to bilateral talks, which Beijing prefers.
“Bilateral (talks) can be a component but multilateral is the approach. The problem is multilateral. In ASEAN alone, there are four countries of the 10 who are claimants to the Spratlys group,” he said. “So, how can two talk or how can one of four talk with China and bind the other three?”
He stressed that multilateral talks can only be effective if it “binds everybody.”
“Otherwise, we settle a portion of the problem and we retain the rest of the problem,” he told the group of foreign and local journalists.
Nevertheless, Aquino said there seemed to be a “little bettering” of the relations between Manila and Beijing, despite the two sides’ holding their ground firmly.
He cited Interior and Local Government Secretary Manuel Roxas’ meeting with leader-in-waiting Xi at the China-ASEAN Expo in Nanning City recently to discuss the territorial dispute.
“The little warming up is that they have initiated dialogue with us. Initially at Vladivostok (in Russia at APEC summit) but that didn’t push through but subsequently at the China-ASEAN Expo,” Aquino recounted.
“The messages were practically the same, only there are some differences. That’s why I said there seems to be a very gradual warming up. I want to be very precise. We are hopeful this gradual warming up will be really warmed up by the time of the transition,” he said.
Aquino said the mood was different at the height of the standoff at Panatag.
“If you were to return to what it was before the conflict in Bajo de Masinloc happened, then that is a very significant improvement,” he said. “We go back to their statements about adhering to international law, which is also the position we have adopted from the very beginning, and specifically we both mentioned UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) and we’re both signatories to UNCLOS and various other treaties,” he added.
“At some point, we do have to defend our interests but we might have to defend it more vigorously. And by that I mean we take it up in the international fora, the adjudicating tribunals that are already stated under international law,” he reasoned out.
“The whole point of the exercise is, from the start… not to escalate the conflict but to deescalate it,” he said. “I’m really not comfortable telegraphing our intentions to the other side.”
“There is some degree of change in terms of a little bettering of the situation. I have to emphasize a little bettering of the situation compared to where it was at the height of the tensions,” he said.
“But we’re still a long way from really taking it back to where it was.
“We are still hoping that we will resolve this amicably; that reasonable voices will prevail; and that both sides are really geared towards arriving at a solution that will satisfy not just the bilateral concerns but, more importantly, I guess the multilateral concerns affecting this issue.” – Rainier Allan Ronda
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