REPORTS of possibly restarting negotiations with China on a joint oil and gas exploration project reveal the difficulties of dealing with a superpower bent on having its way. Still, talking and disagreeing seem better than the alternative.
Few people probably expected that talking to China, an economic and a military giant, would be easy for a country like the Philippines. Perhaps that was why the Aquino 3rd administration avoided bilateral talks with China. As people remember, the Duterte administration took a different approach. But for repairing frayed relations with Beijing, former president Rodrigo Duterte was accused of supposedly being pro-China.
If that were true, though, it did not show when the previous government negotiated the joint project in the contested area of the South China Sea, which the government calls the West Philippine Sea.
The details were summarized by the current Foreign Affairs secretary, Enrique Manalo. In a testimony before Congress last week, he recounted that the Philippines and China signed a memorandum of understanding in 2018, and that agreement mentions a 60-40 split of any oil or gas to be discovered. More specifically, 60 percent would go to the Philippines in accordance with what the 1987 Constitution requires for mineral resource1s.
After that, Mr. Manalo told Congress that China tried to renegotiate the terms, particularly the 60-40 provision. China now wants a bigger share. Also, there was disagreement on the jurisdiction for settling disputes. Not surprisingly, China wanted disputes to be resolved according to Chinese laws, while the Philippines pushed for local jurisdiction. The stalemate frustrated the supposedly pro-China Duterte government.
Then in June, then-Foreign Affairs secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr., now the Philippine ambassador-designate to the United Kingdom, sounded exasperated when he announced that negotiations with China had ended after three years. Referring to his Chinese counterpart, Mr. Locsin said, “We had both tried to go as far as we could — without renouncing China's aspiration on his part; and constitutional limitations on my part. I shut down the shop completely.”
Off and on
In Congress, Mr. Manalo revealed that the relatively new Marcos government had reached out to China, saying the Philippines would be interested in reviving the talks that were terminated last June. This is a welcome development, even though the chances of success remain slim.
We disagree with some lawmakers and others who assert that the disputed territories issue should be resolved before talks about joint exploration could begin again. First of all, the Philippines cannot ignore China, which is not only a rising power but also one of our closest neighbors.
Second, diplomats talking is always preferable to having the military resolve differences. When people with guns get involved, mistakes or miscalculations could escalate tensions and lead to conflict. That would further burden the world, which does not need another war like the one happening in Eastern Europe.
When diplomats disagree, however, they mostly use words to spar. Thankfully, Filipino diplomats like Mr. Manalo have shown that they have what it takes to hold their ground against China. We should be proud of them.
Also, the world heard President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. proclaim that he would protect “every millimeter” of the Philippine territory, and that the government is “jealous” of everything that is Filipino. Those words leave no room for misunderstanding.
Of course, he also said the Philippines will be a friend to everyone and an enemy to no one. And that is perhaps why talks about joint exploration are on again. Even if no agreement is reached, not all will be wasted. Besides, geopolitical issues are never easy to untangle, but as long as the two sides are talking, there is hope. To paraphrase retired general Edilberto Adan, Filipinos should seek ways to cooperate with China where we can but resist where we must.
Finalizing the exploration terms with China is perhaps next to impossible, especially with the unresolved territorial dispute looming over the possible talks. But suspicions and paranoia typically result from the lack or absence of communication. Because of that, keeping the peace does not seem like a bad consolation.
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