Smoldering disputes

Posted on September 26, 2012

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‘The President’s special emissary to Beijing meets Chinese vice- president, delivers message of peace, but the disputes between the two countries continue to burn slowly.’

PRESIDENT Noynoy Aquino’s special emissary to Beijing, Interior Secretary Mar Roxas, succeeded in meeting Chinese Vice President Xi Jingping, delivered a message of peace for President Hu Jintao, but, alas, the territorial disputes between their two countries in the West Philippine Sea continue to smolder.

Roxas and Xi, China’s emerging new leader, also talked about the willingness of both their countries to improve their bilateral relations, but news reports say that there are still “substantial gaps” which separate them in the search for a peaceful settlement of their disputes over Kalayaan Islands and Bajo de Masinloc (Panatag Shoal) in the West Philippine Sea.

Apart from this, they are disputing ownership of other islands, reefs and atolls within the Exclusive Economic zone (EEZ) of the Philippines, while neighboring countries Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan have also staked their claims to the littoral areas within their EEZs and territorial waters.

Actually, Aquino was supposed to have personally delivered his message to Hu on the sidelines of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders’ summit in Vladivostok, Russia last September 9, but they were unable to see each other. It was delivered only last week by Roxas on the sidelines of the 9thChina-Asean Expo in Nanning, capital of Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.

Even before Roxas could report to Aquino on his mission, however, news dispatches emanated from Beijing revealed that when Aquino visited Beijing last August he “agreed to Chinese suggestions” for a joint development of areas in the South China Sea.

Vice President Xi Jinping reportedly informed Roxas during their dialog that Aquino did so, and Xi expressed hopes that the Philippine government will abide by the “consensus” reached between President Aquino and President Hu on promoting bilateral cooperation and properly handling the issues concerning the South China Sea.

China’s official Xinhua news agency also reported that Xi told Roxas that “the consensus still works as an important guideline for the development of bilateral ties.” He called on the two nations to honestly implement the consensus in an effort to promote the healthy and stable development of the bilateral relations. “I hope this (situation) will not appear again and again, allowing bilateral relations to return to the track of normal development,” Xinhua quoted Xi. “China-Philippine relations have encountered some difficulties. However, through effective communication between the two sides, the situation has already eased.”

The startling revelations by Xi to Roxas about Aquino’s supposed commitment were not mentioned by Malacañang’s mouthpieces in their press statements about Roxas’ mission. All they did was to quote Roxas as saying that he and Xi had “a frank and candid exchange of views.”

Later, Roxas himself confirmed this during a press conference at the Palace the other day, saying that he told Xi “talk-talk is better than no talk…” He admitted that both sides stood firm on their respective positions vis-à-vis the smoldering disputes, but he was mum about Xi’s statement about Aquino having agreed to “Chinese suggestions” for joint development of oil and gas resources in the disputed area.

If true, this puts a new wrinkle to the disputes between the two countries. What happens now to the policy of multilateral negotiations adopted by Aquino’s government? Did he junk it? What will the other claimant nations say? Won’t this complicate more an already very complicated situation in the waters and land features of the West Philippine Sea, which the Chinese claim are parts of the South China Sea?

Secretary Roxas met Vice President Xi, delivered Aquino’s message of peace to President Hu, but so far there’s no official response from him. Until China’s supreme leader does, there is absolutely no reason for anyone, Filipino or Chinese, to sing hosannas to peace, since the interstate disputes continue to smolder to this very day.

Making peace, as an eminent statesman once said, is harder than making war!

Nestor Mata

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