How do you solve a problem like China?


FAIR COMMENT | Alito L. Malinao

As the diplomatic reporter of the Manila Standard in the late 1990s I was already writing about the Spratlys and the South China Sea. At that time, the term West Philippine Sea was not yet invented.

During slack days when nothing of importance happened at the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) I and the late Julius Fortuna of the Daily Globe would put a spin, or salsal as we call it in the local journalistic lingo, to old stories about the contested area, sprinkled it with interviews with DFA officials, and presto we had a news story.

The problem in the South China Sea actually never left the media’s periscope. But the tension was less then as it is now. Today we have a cacophony of views on the issue involving some of our respected current and former officials, especially after the sighting of hundreds of Chinese vessels in Julian Felipe Reef which is within our exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

On one hand, we have a group led by former Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonio Carpio and former DFA Secretary Albert del Rosario that has been very vocal about the latest intrusion of the Chinese vessels reminding everyone that what the Chinese have done violates the 2016 ruling of the Hague tribunal that recognizes the country’s sovereignty in the area that includes Juan Felipe Reef and invalidates China’s claim of almost the whole of the South China Sea.

On the other hand, we have the Duterte government which lately has also recognized the arbitral ruling as a part of international law and should be respected but has emphasized the need to resolve the issue peacefully to keep the close economic ties with Beijing.

So, what to do?

Following are some ideas on how to resolve the conflict:
1) Order our air force and navy to confront the Chinese vessels and ask them to leave the premises. Of course, the Chinese would resist and the result would be an armed confrontation or war. This is not an option and should be avoided.

2) Bring the issue to the United Nations as what has been frequently suggested by Carpio and Del Rosario. The problem here is that China has ignored the arbitral ruling and what assurance do we have that it will respect any sanctions by the UN? China is also a permanent member of the UN Security Council and could veto any resolution that would censure its actions in the disputed are.

3) Continue filing diplomatic protests against China as what Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin, Jr, has been doing even if China has also continued to ignore them. Keeping the pressure on China might eventually result in some positive developments.

4) Wait for the Chinese to leave the area on their own. The latest news is that there are only about 40 vessels scattered in the area from the original 200.

5) Agree to a modus vivendi in the contested territory with both parties retaining their respective positions and putting as stop to any incursion. After all, the South China Sea is a vast expanse of water where resources can be shared by all claimant-countries.

We hope this current impasse can be resolved peacefully because we already have enough problem with the pandemic.

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