BEIJING—The Philippine press has a role to play in helping ease tensions between Manila and Beijing over their territorial dispute in the South China Sea (West Philippine Sea), a top Chinese official said on Thursday.
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 view on the issues.”
“In general, we hope the Philippine government and media can work together with China to ease than aggravate the situation there,” Wang told Asian journalists, including this reporter, who were invited for a two-week press tour of China.
Manila and Beijing have overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea but never have their relations been so strained until the current standoff over Scarborough Shoal.
For a month now, the two countries have stationed vessels at the shoal, which both claim to be part of their territory.
Wang gave reporters a briefing of the functions of his office which he said “presents China to the rest of the world” and deals with foreign journalists in China.
In general, he said the Asian media “pay unprecedented attention to China” and that Beijing hopes the foreign media will be “more objective, comprehensive and have deeper coverage of China.”
In Manila, senators on Thursday cautioned against comments in the media that could worsen the problem at Scarborough Shoal.
Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV warned that Chinese officials are closely monitoring the utterances of Philippine officials that are quoted in the press.
“So let’s not further aggravate the situation. Anyway, there are already efforts to resolve this diplomatically,” he told a news forum in the Senate.
The Senate foreign relations chair, Loren Legarda, said: “There’s no reason for us to fight each other. Let us focus on the issues that build, instead of the concerns that destroy. There is so much commonality, than the issues that we differ in.”
Trillanes, a former Navy officer, played down the latest crisis between the Philippines and China saying worse had happened before, but the public never heard about them.
Trillanes recalled a time when “100 Chinese boats” suddenly surrounded the vessel he was on and a large one that also belonged to the Philippine Navy. The vessels were on their way to Japan.
“Those were maritime auxiliary vessels. We were near mainland China but still not within their territorial seas,” Trillanes said. “We had to maneuver our way out of the maze of Chinese vessels. Our smaller boat got out more easily. The larger one took some time, parang patintero” he said.
Trillanes recalled another incident. He was assigned to coast patrol and he and his men boarded a Chinese vessel and inspected it “according to the rule book.”
Trillanes said he was surprised to learn when he landed that the Chinese embassy had complained that his vessel rammed the Chinese vessel, causing it to sink.
“When we learn of vessels being blocked this time, that’s actually commonplace. And this does not happen just on our shores. But the situation could worsen with the way we report and react to these reports,” Trillanes said.
He said Philippine vessels always stood their ground even when confronted by large Chinese boasts.
Trillanes said the Scarborough dispute could serve as the military’s best argument for modernization.
Sen. Manuel Villar said the public should stop commenting on the dispute over Scarborough Shoal.
“Scarborough Shoal is ours,” Villar said. “We’re not fighting with them. We should support the President here. But the better thing to do is for all of us to keep quiet, and soon enough this will die down.”
Foreign affairs officials, Villar said, should be allowed to work out a peaceful solution with Beijing.
“It’s only through diplomatic means that we can resolve this,” he said. “Besides, only the spokesperson was speaking for China. Let’s not respond to this.”
In a separate interview, Sen. Gregorio Honasan boasted that the Coast Guard and the Navy are prepared to “fight to the last man.”
Honasan added, however, that he would insist on a peaceful resolution of the Scarborough dispute. With reports from TJ Burgonio and Cathy C. Yamsuan