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Envoy defends PH’s two-track approach in South China Sea issue

BEIJING, June 12 — Separating non-contentious issues from contentious ones is wiser approach to settle disputes in the South China Sea, according to Philippine Ambassador to China Jose Santiago Sta. Romana.

“The two-track approach is wiser,” Sta. Romana said when asked by A group of Filipino journalists for comments on The Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) judgment released exactly a year ago on Wednesday.

Three years after the Philippines filed arbitration case, the PCA ruled on July 12, 2016 nullifying China’s nine-dash demarcation to insist its historic claims that cover almost the whole South China Sea territory.

“It’s been a year since the arbitral tribunal award. But over the past year, basically, there’s been a paradigm shift, a basic approach in handling relationship with China,” Sta. Romana said.

“Instead of an approach putting the dispute at the center of the bilateral relations, the Duterte administration decided to separate into two tracks. The contentious issues on put track and non-contentious issues on another track,” he added.

The contentious issues, he said, are the issues of sovereignty and maritime jurisdiction including China’s nine-dash line while non-contentious issues are trade, economic, infrastructures and people-to-people exchanges.

“The non-contentious issues were frozen on the past years because the dispute has been put at the center. The basic approach now is don’t let the dispute be an obstacle to developing the non-contentious issues,” he explained.

While President Rodrigo Duterte decided to temporarily shelve the PCA’s ruling, Sta. Romana emphasized that South China Sea issue was not totally forgotten in the first year of President Duterte’s administration.

He said the South China Sea or West Philippine Sea disputes, including the Philippines’ arbitral tribunal victory, were discussed in the two countries’ first Bilateral Consultative Mechanism meeting held in Guiyang, China last May. The meeting will resume late this year in Manila.

“The differences remain but at least we were able to talk about it in amicable and civil manner. That’s the basic change in the approach and that’s basically the approach that we are following in terms of developing the bilateral relations,” Sta. Romana said.

The dual-track approach, including the BCM meeting, was one of the fruits of two productive visits that President Duterte made in China in October last year and May this year.

In both trips, President Duterte met with Chinese officials, including President Xi Jinping, a move that normalized China-Philippines relations and brought home USD24 billion worth of investment pledges and infrastructure projects.

Under the renewed relationship, China has lifted ban on importation of tropical fruits, particularly banana and pineapples, from the Philippines and is working on possible hiring of English teachers and, likely, English-speaking nannies from the Philippines.

“In addition, there are more high level of exchanges now. So at least we have restored all the bilateral mechanism: foreign ministers are talking again, the two coast guards have formed joint committee for areas of cooperation and then, in the coming months, they will restore the joint commission for defense and security,” Sta. Romana said.

Sta. Romana downplayed criticism that President Duterte’s decision to temporarily shelve the PCA’s judgment to give way friendly dialogues has compromised the Philippines’s claim in the disputed territory also being partly claimed by Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei.

“What we are trying to do is not to give up our claims and yet to develop good relations and this is the goal of the Duterte administration,” the soft-spoken envoy said.

He said the Philippines has not lost even an inch of territory when Duterte’s government opted to take two separate tracks in dealing with China on the South China Sea disputes.

“I don’t think we have lost an inch of territory. We gained whereas before we don’t have access to Scarborough shoal, now we have access. The Chinese claims that they would not build and there is consensus to keep this area as marine reserves and as fishing areas,” Sta. Romana said.

“So basically, what we are trying to do is hopefully, through this approach, is not only to defend and preserve what we have but, if possible, regain what we have lost,” he added.

Sta. Romana said use of force is not an option in resolving the South China Sea issue, adding there is no shortcut solution to the problem that swelled for so many years.

“The Chinese, they negotiate seriously and it takes time to try to outlast you if possible but if you try to force an issue, it will result an escalation of tension and possibly, conflict,” he said. (PNA)

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