China assured the Philippines yesterday that it would not stoke their territorial dispute in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), and that it would only respond to provocations by claimants in the contested waters.
Speaking at a meeting with Philippine Daily Inquirer editors and reporters in the newspaper’s office in Makati City, Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Ma Keqing also revived proposals for joint exploration of mineral, oil and marine resources in the West Philippine Sea, as she “cannot see” a solution to the territorial dispute between the two countries “in the near future.”
“One thing I can say here is that China will not, never be provocative to any country. You can [rest assured of that],” Ma said.
“China will only be reactive when it’s provoked. China will not initiate any incident. China will not be provocative. That I can say. It’s the commitment of China,” Ma said.
“We are not your enemy,” she said as she was posing for a photograph with the editors and reporters after the meeting.
Ma gave the assurance when pressed for a clarification on China’s new rules authorizing Chinese border patrol to board, search and expel foreign ships that enter what Beijing considers its territory in the South China Sea, parts of which are officially known in the Philippines as the West Philippine Sea and in Vietnam as the East Sea.
Besides the Philippines and Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia, as well as Taiwan, claim parts of the sea, the main maritime link between the Pacific and Indian oceans, giving it enormous trade and military value. Its shipping lanes connect East Asia with Europe and the Middle East.
Major unexploited oil and gas deposits are believed to lie under the seabed.
The sea is home to some of the world’s biggest coral reefs and, with marine life being depleted close to the coasts, it is becoming increasingly important as a source of fish to feed growing populations.
The announcement of the new rules last week, coming just days after China issued new passports stamped with a map showing China’s claims in the South China Sea—nearly the entire sea—caused great alarm in Southeast Asia. The Philippines and Vietnam protested the map on the new Chinese passports and demanded a clarification on the interdiction rules.
Chinese media reported last week that the new rules, to come into effect on Jan. 1, would allow border police in the southern province of Hainan to prohibit foreign ships from entering the South China Sea.
It was not clear whether the rules were local legislation in Hainan or had the stamp of Beijing.
It is known, however, that China administers the South China Sea from Hainan.
The United States, whose military is “pivoting” to Asia after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is also seeking clarification of the new rules.
“The US government very much wants clarification of what these rules mean, how they will be interpreted by the Hainan government and marine enforcement agencies, and the purpose of these rules,” US Ambassador to China Gary Locke said on Wednesday on the sidelines of an investment forum in Beijing.
Not one to provoke
Ma sidestepped questions about the new rules, saying China had never been one to provoke.
“You can see all the incidents, what has happened. China has never been the provocative part but only reactive,” she said.
Asked whether China considered any of the Philippines’ actions on the dispute as provocative, Ma said: “I think you can read that in the newspaper, [if you] recall the incidents, you will have your own conclusions.”
Ma raised previous proposals to shelve the debate over territorial sovereignty among the claimants and instead make room for joint exploration of resources in the South China Sea.
“I think it is still a very valid formula pending the solution of the disputes. We can have cooperation with each other to [explore] the resources because we cannot see in the near future, the very short term, that we can solve all the disputes,” she said.
“[T]he disputes over sovereignty and territorial integrity is the very, very, most sensitive thing, I should say, to all countries, all governments. They are sensitive and are bearing the feelings, sentiments of the people of every country,” she added.
Ma also referred to the foreign policy declaration made by China’s leadership at its Communist Party Congress last month that China is committed to pursuing peaceful relations and will not threaten any nation.
Path of peace
“China is determined, committed to follow a path of peaceful development. China will continue to follow the policy of independence and peace. China will never seek hegemony. China will not be engaged in expansion. China will not pose a threat to any country,” Ma said.
She reiterated China’s stand that the regional conflict would best be solved by bilateral talks—an approach that the Philippines has long opposed, choosing to follow instead a multilateral track in resolving the dispute.
“We think that is the most feasible way to solve the problem, the disputes among the countries directly involved, through friendly and reasonable consultations and dialogues… [W]e believe that if there is trust, if there is goodwill and if there is readiness, it’s much easier to solve problems,” Ma said.
Despite the territorial dispute, Ma cited the long history of relations between China and the Philippines, stressing that the two countries have maintained “amicable” ties in the last millennium “without a single conflict.”
“I think from our point of view, we should not let problems and disputes overshadow our relationship and hijack the relationship between our two countries. We have every reason to further promote cooperation,” she said.
“The problems that we’ve encountered account for at most 10 percent of our relations. Ninety percent are positive. So we should work out the 90 percent instead of neglecting the 90 percent majority, and focus less on the 10 percent of the issues,” she added.
China is the Philippines’ third largest trading partner, with total bilateral trade in 2011 at $12.32 billion, according to the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA).
China is also an important tourist market for the Philippines, with increasing traffic to Manila, though not among the Philippines’ top tourist markets, according to Philippine travel agents.
Ma said interest in travel to the Philippines was slowly reviving in China after jitters in May, at the height of protests against China over the standoff between Chinese and Philippine ships at the Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal) in the West Philippine Sea.
At the time, Chinese tours to the Philippines were canceled amid fears that Filipinos would be “hostile” toward Chinese visitors, Ma said.
“[The] atmosphere was very much poisoned. So the image of the Philippines was not very positive, I should say. [It was] very negative in China. People in China were so afraid, angry why so many Filipinos are hostile [toward] China. From then on, they canceled the trips to the Philippines,” she said.
But there has been renewed confidence among the Chinese that the Philippines is safe to visit, Ma said.
“Now, with the easing of the tension and warming up of relations, [Chinese] people have the desire to come to the Philippines,” she said.
Ma said she had yet to hear of any complaint from Chinese tourists about the Philippines’ not stamping visas on the new Chinese passports, using instead separate visa forms.
The DFA issued the new procedure to the Bureau of Immigration, Philippine embassies and consulates earlier this month in protest the map on the new Chinese passports. With reports from AFP