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Slow boat to China

‘Balangay’ to China? Better than Jet Ski diplomacy

/ 12:13 AM April 08, 2017

A Philippine official said on Friday that he would sail a replica of a balangay — the country’s oldest known boat — across the disputed South China Sea all the way to China, in what was envisioned as an epic voyage meant to foster stronger bilateral relations.

The trip would retrace the 1,000-kilometer trip of a Sulu sultan to the emperor of the Ming Dynasty 600 years ago, said Environment Undersecretary Art Valdez, the expedition leader.

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He would lead a crew of 40 aboard an 80-footer balangay, which would set sail from the country’s Sulu archipelago, passing through the South China Sea.

The voyage is to begin mid-April and would likely take a month, depending on weather conditions.

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Two smaller support boats are expected to accompany the balangay, believed to be the first wooden vessel excavated in Southeast Asia that indicated early Filipinos as a seafaring people.

Valdez said he was eyeing to reach China in time for President Duterte’s visit there next month, when he is expected to talk to his Chinese counterpart about a bilateral mechanism to prevent disputes from escalating in the sea region.

He would “rendezvous” with Mr. Duterte, who once vowed to defend Philippine maritime rights by riding a jet ski. He said he hoped that the Philippine leader would ride the vessel.

Symbolic ride

“That would be [symbolic] even if he rides on the boat for just 30 minutes. It’s better than riding a jet ski,” Valdez said. “[It’s] trying to bridge friendship and … mutual benefit for our people in a way.”

Mr. Duterte wouldn’t be the first Philippine leader to ride the balangay.

Valdez, in his first voyage in 2010, also invited Presidents Fidel Ramos, Joseph Estrada, and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to board the vessel.

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However, only Ramos accepted the invitation.

Valdez said the trip was meant to complete his voyage seven years ago, which was cut short after bad weather condition forced them to abandon the course.

“I thought we should complete the voyage. Nothing to do with geopolitics,” he explained.

Forging confidence

“I think it’s the perfect time because then it will also augur (well) for warming relations between China and the Philippines. You know, Asians, they work on symbolisms, while the West is confrontational. This is the best way to forge confidence among our people,” Valdez said.

Valdez said he hoped to ask Chinese officials to make the Philippines a center of today’s “maritime silk road,” referring to the ancient trading route.

But he said the expedition was not meant to cozy up to China and drop the West.

“No. At the end of the day, it’s our interest.  We’re not kowtowing to them, to the Chinese. We’re simply trying to say that … this is how we were,” Valdez said. “Why push us to a corner in a certain way?”

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TAGS: Art Valdez, balangay, Fidel Ramos, maritime dispute, South China Sea, West Philippine Sea
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