Expert: Case vs China won't be a slam dunk for PH

Posted at 03/30/14 6:59 PM

Former ABC News Beijing bureau chief Chito Sta. Romana

MANILA -- Even if China waives its right to join the proceedings at an arbitral tribunal, the West Philippine Sea will not be handed to the Philippines in a silver platter, an expert said.

Former ABC News Beijing bureau chief Chito Sta. Romana said China is waiting on the sidelines, looking for any possible mistake on the part of the Philippines, before it launches its bid over the mineral-rich area.

In an interview with ANC, the Emmy Award-winning journalist said the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) allows the proceedings to continue even in the absence of one party.

“But how do we enforce a decision in the end? Winning will not be a slam dunk, because the Chinese is actually making an argument that the [case] should not be done under the UNCLOS,” he said.

The arbitral tribunal’s failure to render a decision – which could be due to a lack of jurisdiction – is actually one scenario that the Philippines will have to face in the end, he said, noting that the Chinese has always favored a “political settlement” over one such as the UNCLOS.

“The Chinese prefers a bilateral approach. This has been their diplomatic negotiating history. We tried it with China for 70 years, but the judgment of our political leaders has been: It did not work. That’s why the political leadership, in 2013, decided to pursue a multilateral approach,” he said.

There’s also the Chinese cultural aspect, he noted. “To file a case against a neighbor is to humiliate or shame the neighbor,” he said.

This could explain why China remains on the sidelines, and on the prowl.

“Although the Chinese don’t participate, they’re already waging a legal battle. They’re trying to influence the arbitral tribunal from the outside,” Sta. Romana said.

‘Hide the brightness of the sword’

Such is China’s strategy in dealing with its core interests, he said. In the aftermath of the Cold War, for example, China chose a lie-low policy that allowed it to build on its maritime and naval forces.

“They have this ‘hide the brightness of the sword.’ It was a hide and bide strategy, a smiling diplomacy. During this period, they concentrated on economic development,” he added.

Finally in the 21st century, while the Western forces were already reeling from the financial crisis, China made its presence felt courtesy of the Olympics.

“It was a moment of glory for the Chinese… It was a time to be more proactive in defending its core interests,” Sta. Romana said.

The Chinese’s claim over the disputed seas – even if anchored on a weak argument – can be backed by the strength of its maritime forces, he said.

“We will see more of that,” he said of the Ayungin Shoal incident on Saturday, when the Chinese Coast Guard tried to block Philippine Marines from replenishing the supplies of Filipino soldiers stationed there.

But the journalist believes the Chinese will not draw its guns, except to provoke the Philippines into doing something extreme.

“We have to be on guard. They’re looking for weak points. They will just try to disrupt the supply lines, and they might be able to eject us without firing a single shot. [This will be done] just by encircling the Philippine vessels, applying the superiority of their ships,” he said.

If the Philippines will “make a mistake” similar to what happened when the Philippine Coast Guard fired shots at a Taiwanese fishing boat back in May, he said the Chinese “will make use of this as a pretext” to ensuring they get what they want.

The Chinese has this strategy, which Filipinos term as “inumpisahan natin, tatapusin nila,” he warned as he urged Filipinos to “stay calm and exercise maximum tolerance and restraint.”