MANILA and Beijing will discuss maritime disputes in the West Philippine Sea next week, even as a former national security adviser warned that China continues its construction of a “mammoth” naval and air base in Scarborough Shoal.
In a press conference in Beijing at the sidelines of China’s Belt and Road forum, Ambassador to China Jose Santiago “Chito” Sta. Romana said both countries, despite their territorial disputes, would start the bilateral consultative mechanism to discuss sensitive issues on the South China Sea.
“Next week, we will inaugurate the bilateral consultative mechanism on issues of particular concern to each side. This is where the sensitive issues will be discussed,” Sta. Romana said.
“A chance to exchange views on the South China Sea issue,” the envoy said, adding that both the Philippines and China have resumed bilateral talks that were frozen during the previous administration.
He said the bilateral talks will formally start next week, and both sides agreed to have meetings twice a year.
Sta. Romana said the bilateral mechanism is in line with the diplomatic track of President Rodrigo Duterte in resolving the dispute, where the Philippines would put its claims in the back seat and focus on the economic interests and cooperation of Manila and Beijing.
“I think the Philippine approach is basically give diplomacy a chance—give peace a chance. You don’t force an issue, you cannot resolve an issue where there is no consensus, where the two sides are not ready to take it up or discuss,” the ambassador explained.
Earlier, Acting Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo said during Duterte’s visit to China last October, the two countries agreed to establish bilateral consultation by creating a peaceful resolution to the principles of freedom of navigation and overflight.
“The Philippines and China should work together and cooperate for peace and stability in the region, and build mutual trust and confidence,” Manalo said last Jan. 18.
“Both sides agreed to establish a bilateral consultation mechanism on the South China Sea, which will discuss current and other issues of concern to either side, as stated in the Joint Statement issued on the occasion of President Duterte’s State Visit to China in October 2016,” he added.
Meanwhile, former national security adviser and lawmaker Roilo Golez warned that despite the current good relations with China, the latter is still constructing a “mammoth naval and air base” in Scarborough Shoal, a legitimate Philippine territory.
Golez said since August 2012, he has been warning the Philippines over his blog, social media, various and speaking engagements that China intends to develop Scarborough Shoal into a military-civilian base.
“China, if not stopped, can transform Scarborough Shoal into a mammoth naval and air base that would be a clear and present danger to the entire Philippines and our allies,” he warned.
“If China succeeds in transforming Scarborough Shoal into a mammoth Chinese naval and air base, they will be able to complete their envisioned strategic triangle to gain full control of the South China Sea,” he added.
Sta. Romana, a former journalist who worked in China for 21 years before being appointed by Duterte, also said the President, in attending the forum, will not compromise the Philippines’ claim in the South China Sea.
“We are not signing an alliance or treaty here. We are participating in a forum or a discussion,” Sta. Romana said, adding that attending the affair is voluntary for all participating countries.
He said China and the participating countries will release a joint communique over what they have agreed in the Belt and Road forum where trade, labor and goods from each countries will converge into one area.
“He will be here [in Beijing] to promote Philippine economic interest and development interest in broad terms,” Sta. Romana said.
He explained this will be an opportunity for the Philippines to better understand the implications and the projects involved in the summit.
“So in other words, we proceed from our own national interest under the banner of an independent foreign policy, as initiated by the President, and see how we can promote further our economic development interest,” the envoy explained.
Due to Duterte’s independent foreign policy, relations between the two countries are now moving forward despite the territorial dispute in the South China Sea, Sta. Romana said.
“So the basic approach of the Duterte administration has been to put it on separate tracks – take the dispute from the front and center, put it in a separate track, and there you discuss it, you deal with it, one by one, the issue of the South China Sea, the issue of ownership, the sovereignty issue, the issue of tribunal award, and the issue of the nine-dash line,” he said.
“The problem is if you put the dispute in front or center of the bilateral relations, and then you use what you have to solve this first before you can have trade, before you can have cultural links, and so on and so forth,” Sta. Romana said.
“The result is the relation will be frozen, because the disputes cannot be solved overnight. It will have to be discussed over months, if not years, or perhaps even decades of negotiation,” the ambassador said.
Scarborough Shoal is part of the Philippine territory as provided by Republic Act 9522, which defines the country’s archipelagic baselines.
He said the two points of China’s strategic triangle are now complete. First is the Woody Island in the Paracels, already with an operational air base, and second is the cluster of artificial islands China constructed over the past two years.
“China has reclaimed the Mischief Reef inside our exclusive economic zone, the Fiery Cross Reef, and Subi Reef. Each has a three-kilometer runway capable of hosting 24 J-11 fighters that can achieve air superiority in South China Sea,” he said.
Scarborough Shoal has a navigable lagoon that is 130 square kilometers—almost the size of Quezon City—surrounded by ricks that can easily be reclaimed, Golez said.
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