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FOCUS | China in the eyes of the new PH envoy

Presidents Duterte and Xi Jinping stand side by side at the welcome ceremony for the Philippine president when he visited Beijing recently.
The online news portal of TV5

MANILA – Now that the Philippines is no longer perceived as a “pawn” of the United States, the Philippine ambassador-designate to Beijing does not see Manila eventually forging a military alliance with China.

Despite President Duterte’s much-hyped statements on China as an alternative ally to the United States, Ambassador Chito Sta. Romana views the current dispensation’s independent foreign policy like a strategic triangle.

The Philippines in this scheme is separating itself by degrees from US influence, but with Manila maintaining its longstanding military ties with Washington.

“It’s just a pendulum which is swinging to China, but it’s not going all the way,” Sta. Romana told InterAksyon in a recent interview.

Parang mas malapit pa nga tayo sa US (It also looks like we’re even closer to the US),” said the award-winning TV journalist who once served as bureau chief of ABC News in Beijing. It would be best to wait for the political developments in the US to settle down with Donald Trump as the new president-elect, he said.

Still, Sta. Romana pointed out that US State Secretary John Kerry, in his recent visit to Manila, had already “encouraged peaceful consultations' with Beijing by countries like the Philippines, which have territorial disputes with China.

He said  Mr. Duterte’s decision to restore stalled bilateral talks with China was part of Manila’s initiative to look for peaceful solutions “in the sense that it is not emotional, but beyond the box.”

Scarborough Shoal

Meanwhile, China has shown that it can help ease the tension by finally opening the waters around the Scarborough Shoal, which China has controlled since 2012, he said.   

Sta. Romana said that Beijing apparently heeded  President Duterte’s message during his meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jingping, on the need for “Asian brothers helping each other, including Filipino fishermen whose livelihood are suffering because they cannot fish in their traditional fishing waters.”

Sta. Romana, who helped Malacañang in preparing for the Duterte China sojourn while waiting for his official confirmation, said that after his remarks Beijing officials assured him that “we’ll do something about that.”

Sta. Romana, however, quickly pointed out that “It (may be something) in accordance with the tribunal, but you don’t mention the tribunal dahil hindi nila matanggap (because they couldn’t accept it).” This is in reference to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, a UN-backed tribunal that in July 2016 handed Manila a favorable ruling on a complaint it filed in 2013 against China's "excessive" nine-dash line claim in the South China Sea.

Sta. Romana said the sovereignty issues have not really been completely settled because the Netherlands -based international tribunal, while declaring illegal the nine–dash line, didn’t tackle the issue of sovereignty. In the case of Scarborough Shoal, it merely judged it to be a traditional fishing ground of many nationals, including Filipinos and Chinese, thus implicitly deeming illegal Beijing's blockade of the area.

They effectively control (the area) because they have ships there. But within 12 miles both Filipinos and Chinese can fish but provided it is on a “small –scale” basis.

No more hardline stance

Sta. Romana said that when the Philippines took a hardline stance during the Aquino years, the Chinese media – if not just Beijing--  perceived the Philippines as a “pawn” of  the US, until Mr. Duterte lashed out at President Obama while rekindling ties with China.

“Now, they don’t look at us anymore as the ‘Trojan horse, but as a friend,” he said. “It’s a friendly country that is no longer moving or acting in behalf of the United States.

Sta. Romana, who said he has been advising the Department of Foreign Affairs as a China expert after his retirement from active media work in 2010, said it would be best to focus on grabbing  opportunities from “non-contentious” issues, ranging from economic and finance cooperation to culture and sports.

The new ambassador no longer considers  the South China Sea issue as a stumbling block, now that both countries have forged a closer alignment, even if China refused to recognize the PCA Tribunal’s ruling

“The contentious issues have to be compartmentalized. The issue of sovereignty can be discussed through quiet diplomacy and through direct talks,” he said.

Apparently aware of  the Philippines’ intention, Sta. Romana said China was also prompted to stop any reclamation in the disputed areas so as not to antagonize the Philippine leader.

Hegemonic tendencies?

Still, Sta. Romana said it would be difficult to speculate on China’s political agenda, apart from forging closer economic cooperation with the Philippines and its neighboring Asian countries.

“Just like any great power, it is possible they  (the Chinese) would practice hegemony,” he said.

Still, Sta. Romana, hopes that China can maintain a community of equal states, similar to what it had done in ancient times, when it had anchored its power on opening a trading network, then known as the old “Silk Road.

In launching the 21st Century New Maritime Silk Route, he said China focused on connectivity, which includes frameworks for building roads, railways and ports from the Southwest China to South China, and all the way to the Indian Ocean and Africa that will link up to Europe and the Mediterranean.

China has US$5 trillion in foreign reserves, apart from the US$1.5 trillion in US treasury bonds, which the Chinese eventually want to invest in other countries, he noted.

Sta. Romana said Beijing had already pledged US$6 billion, along with a US$3 billion credit facility to the Philippines after both countries agreed on 13 government-to-government projects, either through memoranda of agreement or of understanding.  

Eventually, the Philippine corporations for these projects that would forge partnerships with Chinese counterparts could secure concessional loans, with interest rates lower than the market rates.

The Philippines, for its part, has already agreed to formally submit its ratification papers  before  the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), but after such is concurred in by the Philippine Senate, since it is considered an international treaty.

To avoid a repeat of previous disagreements over key projects, feasibility studies will be conducted on projects like establishing new railways systems for Luzon and Mindanao, and a port in President Duterte’s home city of Davao.

Sta. Romana, however, also explained  that China doesn’t really care about the World Bank, apparently reacting to reports that some of the Chinese state-owned and private enterprises that initially signified their intention to forge business deals in  the Philippines have either been blacklisted, or had derogatory records, in  their previous international projects with the World Bank 

As Sta. Romana put it, “The basic idea there is to be friends with both powers – the rising power and the dominant power.”