(Statement of former Speaker Jose de Venecia, founding chairman of the International Conference of Asian Political Parties (Icapp), on his speech and meetings last week in Beijing.)
For the United States, its military presence on the peripheries of the Chinese mainland may be a kind of “forward defense.” Since the 19th Century, American strategists have feared it is from Asia that an invasion of the US mainland would threaten. The Japanese and World War II justified that fear.
But for the Chinese, the US presence so close to its exposed industrial hinterland is a vestige of colonialism; a trace of the “humiliation” the Chinese suffered from the great powers for 150 years, including several “unequal treaties.”
Hence, the regional crisis over contested South China Sea islets involving principally China, Vietnam and the Philippines is likely to become more serious and more protracted than we—as Southeast Asian participants and bystanders—may expect.
And our individual states should not have to choose between the great powers—because we do not want a new Cold War in the Asia Pacific.
These are my key conclusions from a series of meetings with senior Chinese officials this year and last week in Beijing with the minister and two vice ministers of the Communist Party of China, former senior officers of the People’s Liberation Army, leaders of civil society organizations who are officials of the Chinese parliament, former high ranking diplomats and academics, on the sidelines of an international dialogue sponsored by the Chinese Association for International Understanding.
Highly regarded diplomat
I also had extended conversations with Deputy Foreign Minister Fu Ying, their highly regarded lady diplomat, who seems to be coordinating Chinese policy in the South China Sea (West Philippine Sea) as our able Secretary Alberto del Rosario and Undersecretary Linda Basilio are coordinating Philippine action.
I candidly informed her that the new steps of President Aquino, Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario, and Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin to upgrade the Philippine Armed Forces is one of high priority, since the AFP has perhaps the poorest equipment among armed forces in Southeast Asia, and the program is of long standing, unrelated to the disputes in the sea.
Before officials and civil society leaders from Asia, Europe, North America and Africa, the message I brought on behalf of Icapp—ruling and opposition parties made up of 318 member-parties from 52 Asian states—and on behalf of Capdi—an alliance of political parties and civil society organizations—that East Asia’s greatest shared need is to preserve the bubble of stability that has made our region the fastest growing in the world.
Ideological conflict over
For us, the age of ideological conflict is over. All our countries need to move beyond containment and confrontation toward cooperation and mutual prosperity in their foreign relations. We should not have to choose between the great powers. There are actually more overriding issues that unite China and the US than divide them.
I cited the Joint Statement of President Hu Jintao and President Barack Obama of January 2011 as offering the two sides a basis for rebuilding their historical ties.
In that declaration, the two leaders affirmed that the United States welcomes a strong, prosperous and successful China that plays a greater role in world affairs; and China welcomes the United States as an Asian Pacific nation that contributes to peace, stability and prosperity in the region.
I believe this should also be the policy of the Philippines and Asean in dealing with the two leading global powers—the US and China.
Specifically to resolve the conflicting claims on the Spratlys, I proposed joint exploration and development by the claimant states of the disputed area’s drilling of oil-gas and mineral resources; and the designation of “fisheries corridors” that our fishing fleets may exploit in an orderly and sustainable manner, to prevent tensions, illegal fishing and arrests in the sea.
To prevent conflicts between rival claimants, I invoked the formula of Chinese statesman Deng Xiaoping, who was responsible for China’s emergence as a major economic power and who advocated in 1987 “shelving the issue of sovereignty” in dealing with issues in the China Sea.
Initially, this approach would involve an agreement on an oil-and-gas drilling program, equitably sharing the profits of production before finally demilitarizing the disputed islets through the phased withdrawal of armed garrisons which demilitarization I proposed in 1987.
At the end of this process, we will have converted a zone of conflict into a binding Zone of Peace, Friendship, Cooperation and Development.
Yes, it is a correct step to take the rules-based approach and bring the maritime dispute to the International Tribunal of the Law of the Seas (Itlos) if China agrees. But what if China does not? Witness that for all intents and purposes, we have practically lost Sabah to Malaysia—a much, much bigger contested asset—because Malaysia refused to join the Philippines in bringing the Sabah claim to the International Court of Justice for decision.
I informed delegates to the conference about how envious we are that pragmatic, negotiated geopolitical settlements led to successful oil-and-gas development programs among European powers in the North Sea, hydrocarbon riches benefiting the Central Asians and Eurasians in the Caspian Sea, and joint sharing of oil and gas revenues between Australia and tiny East Timor in their contested waters.
From my conversations, I sensed that, for the Chinese, the recovery of “lost territories” during the “period of weakness” remains a highly emotional issue. Since 1950, China has used force to defend its periphery 30 times.
Pull out Coast Guard
These conflicts included “border wars” against the United States and UN forces (Korean War), France (on behalf of Vietnam), India in the Himalayas, Russia in the Ussuri river border conflict in 1969, and Vietnam (a border war in 1979 and two naval encounters in 1974 and 1988.)
On the Scarborough Shoal (Panatag), as a practical solution, I proposed that both sides consider pulling out their Coast Guard or government vessels, fishing boats and auxiliaries from the shoal from June 1 to June 10 in a slow, without fanfare, simultaneous mutual disengagement so nobody loses face, to be completed preferably not later than June 9-10 (37th anniversary of the start of Philippine-Chinese diplomatic relations).
Or, if adjustments are needed, the same should be quietly completed thereafter, after a few days, as the severe storms of July would in any case drive out the ships of both sides from Scarborough Shoal. I reminded our Chinese and Filipino friends that following bitter historic debates, it was Mother Nature, the volcano Mt. Pinatubo, that finally drove out the American military bases in Clark and Subic.
On the issue of whether China and the Philippines should resolve the dispute between them in bilateral or multilateral negotiations, the Chinese have pointed out that they successfully resolved their land border conflicts with Russia and Vietnam in bilateral, not multilateral, negotiations and are continuing their bilateral talks with India on the Himalayan positions.
Talk to other claimants
Let us also talk to Malaysia and Brunei, the other claimants, who have not disputed strongly with China.
Today, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Pakistan, Myanmar, Singapore, Indonesia, the Central Asians, Africans and Latin Americans have major economic joint ventures with China, drawing on huge Chinese investments in energy, natural resources, infrastructure and tourism.
Before we turn down the bilateral approach, let us talk to the other claimants, and we ourselves should talk directly to the Chinese, at first in informal bilateral negotiations, listen to their proposal on the settlement of the dispute. We may find our positions not too far apart.
Yes, in my view, our leaders should take the greatest care in charting policy on the complex South China Sea issue. What is at stake for our people may not merely be barren rocks, some of which are submerged at high tide.