A Change of Guard

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Monday, 14 May 2012

Can we remain sovereign over Panatag? [Cambodia becomes a diplomatic battleground for China-Asean dispute]

Published : Sunday, May 13, 2012
The Manila Times
As our banner story narrates, the government of the People’s Republic of China has three conditions for the resolution of the stand-off over Panatag Shoal or Bajo de Masinloc.

The conditions or requirements are (1) That Chinese vessels in the waters of the South China Sea near and at Panatag (Huangyan Islands to the People’s Republic) should not be disrupted from carrying out their duties.

(2) That Chinese fishermen and their boats should not be interrupted in their activities. And (3) That Philippine government vessels must withdraw from the area.

All these three items mean that the Republic of the Philippines should surrender Bajo de Masinloc.

China keeps repeating over and over again that the issue should be resolved through diplomacy.
That is also the Philippine government’s stand. But how can talks proceed if the only thing each side tells the other is that the disputed shoal belongs to it.

Tatad and Mandanas
Now Two Filipino leaders, former senator Francisco Tatad and Congressman Hermilando Mandanas, are urging the Aquino government to agree to have exclusively bilateral discussions on the issue with China.

This is what China wants. It doesn’t want sovereignty disputes over Panatag, the Spratlys and anything about the West Philippine to be discussed in any way but bilaterally.

It doesn’t want the dispute to be settled in an international court or any international forum.

Messrs. Tatad and Mandanas believe that in one-on-one negotiations the Philippines will succeed in defending and protecting our territorial integrity from China’s claim that Panatag is its territory.

The Aquino administration miscalculated its ability to sway the Asean countries to support it morally against China. Each member of Asean has its own economic dream of making oodles of money with China.

We could not even win our case in Asean to draft a binding Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea (West Philippine Sea).

12 years since COC was first talked about
It’s been 12 years since Asean and China started holding talks about the COC in 2000. We, the Philippines, were the most enthusiastic about drafting a COC that would hold back China from asserting its claims over shoals, islets and islands that belong to Asean countries. The other members were lukewarm to the Philippine campaign. The result was a diluted brew that is called the Declaration on Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, the DOC.

The DOC is not a binding document. And its subject matter is not even conflict resolution and prescribing good and punishing back conduct. All the DOC does is call on parties in a dispute to carry out so-called confidence-building measures and cooperative activities pending the resolution of sovereignty conflicts.

For years nothing serious was done to get even the weak provisions of the DOC implemented.
Then last year, China and the Asean member countries adopted guidelines for DOC
implementation. But not much has been done except the formation of four working groups — on environmental protection, scientific research, and transnational crime. There was a fifth group that could not be formed—on navigational safety—because Asean members could not agree among themselves and with China on the details.

The DOC had committed the Asean members to draft a COC. With the DOC implementation guidelines adopted last year it seemed possible to approve the COC, which some Asean officials had drafted, this year. This did not happen. For at the Asean foreign ministers’ meeting in Cambodia last January, the members could not agree on three items, all proposed by the Philippines.

One proposal was a call for an Asean-organized meeting between China and the various claimant countries. Some of the Asean members were against it, bearing in mind China’s objection to anything but bilateral talks on territorial disputes. Another proposal was for establishing the distinction between disputed and non-disputed areas. The third was for the establishing a dispute settlement mechanism.

At the 20th Asean Summit in Phnom Penh last April, Asean members again could not agree. Before the summit which was held on April 3 and 4, President Hu Jintao went on a state visit to Cambodia. The Chinese president told Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen that China was not in favor of discussing a binding COC too soon.

Nobody knows why, but Cambodia, being chair of Asean, steered talks on the COC out of the summit agenda. The Philippines and Vietnam pressed their wish for the COC discussion at the pre-summit opening meeting of Asean foreign ministers and later at the summit.

This is when Indonesia and Philippine divergence became public. Indonesia wanted China included early on in the drafting of the COC so that the Asean members could hear China’s views from the very beginning. Cambodia supported this view.

The Philippines and Vietnam wanted Asean to first come up with its version and then ask China to meet on the draft. Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario told his counterparts that with China co-authoring the original draft, the Asean members were not going to be “masters of our own destiny.”

These disagreements persisted until the actual summit. There President Aquino spoke to support the idea that Asean should first draft and finalize the COC and only then discuss it with China.

After the summit, Indonesia’s foreign minister Marty Natalegawa disclosed that a compromise had been reached to continue working on the COC. The draft would be done by Asean but China would be constantly informed and consulted.

The Panatag standoff broke out four days after the summit ended.

The Aquino administration’s miscalculation of its ability to get the Asean to support us, the Philippines, on our complaint against China’s incursion was as bad as the failure to get the US to make a stronger commitment to support us.

Now we have no choice but agree to bilateral talks with China.

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