Tit for tat wrong option for Manila

Tuesday, May 15, 2012
Philippine Daily Inquirer/Asia News Network

Manila should not get deep into a tit for tat with Beijing over the Scarborough Shoal dispute despite the two capitals trading barbs against each other.

While the exchange is understandable and has been kept to levels short of open hostilities, the Philippines should focus on elevating the dispute to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (Itlos).

A month after the standoff, the Philippines has not made good its plan to elevate the matter to Itlos unilaterally. If Manila thinks that it could dangle the threat to compel China to leave the shoal, then it's wrong. It should hail “Beijing the Bully” to the world court and teach it civilized behavior.

It is important that Manila vigorously protest arrogant Chinese encroachments on the Panatag or Bajo de Masinloc, as the shoal is known in Philippine maps, and insist that not only is the disputed territory within the 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone and continental shelf of the Philippines, it is also part of Philippine territory.

The Philippines should vigorously pursue all forms of international arbitration and mediation to settle the dispute while enforcing its effective jurisdiction over Bajo de Masinloc. Manila should reveal China's true colors before the international community.

Despite China's assurances that it wants a diplomatic solution to the matter, it has not made any effort to have the issue mediated or, at least, simmered down.

Instead it has bullied the Philippines and flexed its military might, aggravating the standoff in the process. Since the face-off started, it has increased its presence at Bajo de Masinloc; it now has 33 Chinese vessels, aside from two military intelligence vessels, a “10-fold increase,” according to Senate President and former defense secretary Juan Ponce Enrile.

The increased presence, he explained, “is already an indication that China is grabbing the place from us.”

The rallies in Manila over the weekend against Chinese bullying have been peaceful, but Chinese actions have been straining relations between the two countries and exacerbating the tension. Along with low-intensity military flexing, Beijing has trained at Manila what amounts to economic retaliation, suspending tourism to the Philippines and ordering tighter inspections on imported Philippine fruits such as bananas, of which China is the single largest buyer.

The only diplomatic action Beijing has taken is to summon Manila's charge' d'affaires three times, while retired and serving military officers of the Chinese Communist Party have called for a limited military operation to shore up Chinese credibility against what they call as Philippine provocation at Bajo de Masinloc.

The tourism suspension and tightened regulation on Philippine fruits are not surprising. They are unofficial economic pressures that China usually employs in disputes with other countries. But unless China becomes abusive and oppressive, the moves should be taken with relative equanimity by the Philippines.

After all, there are other markets for Philippine fruit exports and China, while a growing tourism market, is not a big loss for Philippine tourism. South Korea, Japan and the United States are bigger markets.

The rather heavy-handed Chinese responses leave little room for maneuverability for both Beijing and Manila. The military and economic retaliations should disclose that Beijing is smarting from the relatively successful Philippine effort to draw world attention, largely through the media, to China's growing imperial pretensions.

China has responded with a charm offensive, inviting Philippine media men to Beijing and urging them to lessen sensational reports on the dispute so as to ease tensions between the two countries.

We have to admit the soft offensive should somehow indicate China does not want the tension to escalate and the dispute to get out of hand. Wang Zhongwei, vice minister of China's State Information Office, said there were some reports in the Philippine media that in his view “do not contribute to easing tensions in the South China Sea.”

But Wang said he noticed there were also some reports that “have presented fair and rational views on the issues. In general, we hope the Philippine government and media can work together with China to ease rather than aggravate the situation there.”

We in the Philippines are hoping likewise.

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