Face-saving options needed in PH-China standoff

Posted at 04/12/12 4:25 PM

MANILA, Philippines - A “quiet diplomatic” solution is needed to resolve the territorial standoff at Scarborough Shoal that would become a “face-saving” measure for both China and the Philippines, a foreign affairs observer and China expert said.

In an interview with ANC on Wednesday night, former ABC News Beijing Bureau Chief Chito Sta. Romana said the current impasse between the two nations over the tiny islands, reefs and shoals will only trigger further tensions if not resolved via diplomatic means.

“What’s the diplomatic way out? China claims it’s theirs, we claim it’s ours and we have a standoff…We can’t be made to appear we’re backing off [and vice-versa]. The solution would lie in a mutual agreement to back off at the same time,” he said.

The dispute began days earlier. The Philippine Navy, through its newly-commissioned BRP Gregorio del Pilar, found eight Chinese fishing boats in the area and accused them of fishing illegally.

Two Chinese Marine Surveillance Ships immediately barricaded the boats, saying the Philippine Navy was harassing its citizens.

Resource-rich South China Sea

Unlike in the islands, reefs and shoals in the Spratlys, China and Philippines are the only ones competing over Scarborough Shoal, which is near Zambales province in central Luzon.

The disputed areas in the whole South China Sea or West Philippine Sea are believed to be rich in resources, which has triggered conflicts among nations.

Sta. Romana said the Philippines stands on better “moral and legal” grounds when it comes to claiming Scarborough Shoal because it is within the country’s 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

China only has its 9-dash line map, or a series of nine dashes or dotted lines forming a ring around the West Philippine Sea. Sovereignty over this area is fostered in the minds of Chinese citizens starting from grade school.

“But there is no China town there [in Scarborough], they have conducted fishing over the years, but they really did not occupy the [area],” Sta. Romana noted. “The problem is, do you want to force the issue?”

As such, leeway should also be given to China, he said. “When you want to assert [and the other also], there’s a potential for miscalculation and conflict,” he said.

Sta. Romana said a win-win solution will allow both claims to still remain and “nobody will say which nation was first to withdraw [from the standoff].”

He said this option will also protect the issue of sovereignty, since both the peoples of China and the Philippines are monitoring the developments.

“Nobody loses face in front of their own people…When it gets dark at a certain time, both will withdraw at the same time…Bilateral channels need to be opened,” he said.

DFA's diplomatic tack

Sta. Romana said this is also the reading he is getting from the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA). Secretary Albert del Rosario has not revealed the “options” for resolving the impasse.

Sta. Romana said the solutions are not being offered “in front of the media” but via “quiet” means.

House of Representatives foreign affairs committee chief Rep. Al Francis Bichara agreed.

In an interview with ANC also on Wednesday night while he was in China for the China-Philippines Years of Friendly Exchanges, he said: “I appeal that this not be blown out of proportion…Let’s keep our cool, no argument can solve this problem,” he said.