The Philippines should be looking forward to reaping the productive results of the decision of President Duterte to refocus our friendship with China to bring about economic development and prosperity to this nation. His desire speaks of the soul and aspiration of the Filipino people. This is an indivisible fact that we can never escape, nor can we blindly follow the structured Western political beliefs often not parallel to the realities of today.
The coming visit of China’s Vice Premier Wang Yang is too valuable to be negated by us. The disinformation is obviously meant to derail all that has been worked out by the President during his visit last January. The coming visit is the concretization of our desire to extend friendship which many expect to further flourish. We should positively take it as an honor to participate in the economic growth of a country predicted to become the world’s next economic powerhouse and whose economic success was not paid in blood and oppression, but one willing to share the bounty of its economic success to the world.
During his visit, Wang Yang will hand over a $1-billion donation for the rehabilitation of the province of Surigao that was struck by a 6.7-magnitude earthquake. There will also be an exchange of notes on the operational procedures to utilize Chinese concessional loans to support Philippine government projects. These include the financing of three priority infrastructure projects, namely Chico River Pump Irrigation project, New Centennial Water-Source-Kaliwa Dam project, and the North-South Railway line valued at $3 billion. China will also assist in the construction of the Binondo-Intramuros and Estrella-Pantaleon Bridges to help ease traffic in Metro Manila. In Davao, Vice Premier Wang Yang will sign an agreement to purchase $1 billion worth of Philippine agricultural products like pineapple, bananas, durian, avocado, coconut, mango, dragon fruit, mangosteen, marang, rice, coffee, cacao, fish, chicken and duck meat, among others.
Last January, a Philippine cabinet delegation led by Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez visited China and proposed a total of 40 infrastructure projects, out of which 15 are to be financed by China and 25 to be supported for feasibility studies. Likewise, Secretary of Energy Alfonso Cusi discussed possible collaboration with his Chinese counterparts. A Memorandum of Understanding will soon be signed in areas as capacity building, Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG), power and transmission system.
What we are now witnessing is the implementation of the productive results of the warm friendship extended by China to the Philippines. During President Duterte’s visit, he exhibited our capacity to depart from the rigidities that for decades shackled us to isolation. Today, we still continue to hurdle the same problem that is bent in preventing us from realizing our objective. The latest is the controversy over Benham Rise, a shallow body of water close to the Philippine archipelago.
Once again, we are agitated because of reports that allegedly China is seeking to occupy and claim that body of water facing the Pacific Ocean. There is much screaming in the mainstream media of the presence of Chinese vessels conducting “survey” in the area. To quell speculations, President Duterte immediately acknowledged that it has his permission.
The mainstream media, which often speaks for the US interest, could not be pacified because of the somewhat blunt statement made by China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang who said “that the UN approval (of the Unclos) does not mean that the region is part of the Philippine territory.” His statement was correct. As local political observer would put it, “... we do not have sovereignty over it but we have our sovereign right which means that all resources in the area belong to us.” To be clear, the approval of the 200-mile exclusive economic zone by Unclos did not vest in us sovereignty over that body of water. Even Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio admitted that we cannot acquire sovereignty there, much that it applies only to land area.
The right to explore and exploit the area of its economic and mineral resources belongs to the state that falls within that zone. But the area must remain an open sea or mare liberum which all ships can invoke free passage under the principle of “freedom of navigation.” Benham Rise is contiguous to the continental shelf that forms the Philippine archipelago. Under the Unclos, a continental shelf is that part of the seabed over which the coastal state could exercise sovereign rights with regard to the exploration and exploitation of natural resources, including gas and oil deposit as well as other minerals and biological resources.
However, sovereign right cannot be used to declare on an area that is a submerged closed sea or mare clausum. China is well aware of this principle, and for good reason, has no plans to lay its claim. It simply stated that the shallow body of water is not part of our territory much that under international law, our territorial sea cannot extend beyond the 12-mile limit from our nearest baseline (shoreline). Since the area is well within the 200-mile exclusive economic zone, logically, it gives us the prior right over any other state.
Anti-Chinese bashers who remain psychologically afflicted with the old political disease called “xenophobic syndrome” are again spreading disinformation about the creeping expansionism of China. They forgot that for China to contest our position would be politically regressive and economically counter-productive. That could instantly alienate the rest of Asean. The US would just be too glad to see it happen because that would dismantle all the planks of friendship both countries have bridged. That would be giving the US the reason to justify its presence in the South China Sea, vis-a-vis bolster their claim that Asean more than ever now needs the US and its military bases in the county pivotal in securing that objective.
Fortunately, Chinese policy makers today are not short-sighted as we might think. China will not recklessly make any move that would not affect their national and security interest. The enormous economic investment and goodwill it implanted to secure friendship and understanding with the Philippines and Asean are all designed to promote coordinated economic growth and stability which indicate that China would not embark to claim an area that could make its geographically claim absurd and illogical.