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Don't rely on US alone, push ASEAN, use global fora: Miriam's tack on standoff with China

MANILA,  Philippines – The Philippines should not expect too much from the ongoing 2 Plus 2 talks between Filipino and American officials in Washington and should push more aggressively its ASEAN counterparts into taking a common stand in facing China, while continuing to assert its rights in every possible international forum, Sen. Miriam Santiago said Sunday.

Santiago, a known expert on constitutional and international law, said in a radio interview that it seems more realistic to assume that China’s real intention in constantly expanding its presence and showing strength in the Scarborough (Panatag) Shoal and other areas in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone is not really to grab outright or claim these as part of its territory, but “to beat other nations,” particularly  those in the ASEAN, in exploiting the huge natural resources believed stored in those seas.

The problem, she said, is that “we small nations” don’t have the capability to exploit the natural wealth as quickly as China plans to.

While China repeatedly claims the whole South China Sea by invoking “history” and rejects Manila’s initiative to bring the Scarborough issue to grievance forums provided under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), China is also afraid of being treated like a pariah by the international community if it makes a naked grab for territory. This is why it combines a creeping occupation of islets and other assets of other countries with diplomatic moves and manifestations of goodwill in other areas, such as aid cooperation, she explained. 

China had started out by simply calling as “fishermen shelters” in 1995 the structures being built on Mischief Reef when Manila denounced this. Since then, per DFA and defense records, it had built structures that looked more like fortresses than plain shelters.

Don’t pin hopes on US alone, tap ASEAN, assert rights

The US, with which the Philippines has an over 60-year old Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), has in recent months been seen by some Philippine officials as a military crutch in case China’s aggression in the West Philippine Sea escalates. In fact, Malacanang officials had said the current standoff over fishing rights at Panatag Shoal, off Zambales province, will very likely be part of the “2 Plus 2” talks between Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto del Rosario and Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin and their US counterparts: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense chief Leon Panetta.

However, “the US also owes China big time. We must never forget that,” Santiago told radio DZBB in an interview, and noted the vague response of US officials to questions in past weeks on what America will do if China’s aggression against the Philippines escalates.

While the US remains a strong ally, Santiago said Manila should keep reaching out---as President Aquino and DFA’s del Rosario have done---to its ASEAN co-members who stand to be most affected by the apparent design of China’s overarching need to have access to resources, especially marine life and energy. “We must keep telling them [ASEAN friends] today, China is doing this to us, tomorrow, it will be you.”

Besides Manila, it is only Vietnam so far that is known to have backed the initiative to have a common, strong stand among the 10 members of the regional bloc, in order to blunt Beijing’s design to  push with bilateral talks that weaken the leverage further of the smaller countries.

Besides the Philippines and Vietnam, two other ASEAN members (Malaysia and Brunei) claim in whole or in part the Spratly island chain. China and Taiwan are the two other claimants.

Meanwhile, Manila would do well to keep asserting its rights in other international forums, said Santiago, who has been chosen for the International Court of Justice, but is expected to assume her seat next year.

For a start, she said, the treaty-ratifying Senate could adopt a resolution affirming the Philippines’ sovereignty over Panatag Shoal, and ask the DFA to convey this to China. It is important to keep asserting one’s rights at every turn, she stressed.

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