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Manila-Beijing word war escalates; 'Element of trust' missing in Philippine-China talks, says DFA

MANILA, Philippines – No conflict is raging in the South China Sea for now, but the word war has begun to escalate between the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) and the Chinese embassy in Manila.

In a statement Thursday afternoon, embassy spokesperson Zhang Hua said “the Chinese side is shocked” by DFA allegations that Ambassador Ma Keqing has relayed to Beijing “incomplete, inaccurate and misleading information” about her meetings on the Scarborough dispute with Philippine foreign officials in Manila.

Earlier, at a two-hour press conference, Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said the “element of trust” was lacking in DFA’s series of meetings with the Chinese embassy in Manila, leading to “inaccurate and misleading information” on which Beijing later premised its “more aggressive” stance in the disputed territory.

But Zhang said his Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) “has made representations to the Philippine embassy in Beijing for these irresponsible remarks” about the territorial dispute and claims of maritime jurisdiction over the shoal, known as “Panatag/Baja de Masinloc” to Philippine officials and “Huangyan” to the Chinese.

Neither Del Rosario nor DFA spokesperson Raul Hernandez could be reached for comments.
At the press conference, Del Rosario also said that he and Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin are due to leave for Washington on Saturday, April 28, for the long-scheduled 2+2 meeting with their US counterparts, State Secretary Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.

Part of Thursday's press briefing was on the Washington meeting, the first such format for a discussion of bilateral issues. The internationally-referred Scarborough Shoal would be in the agenda.

'Irresponsible remarks'

”The Chinese side is shocked by the DFA's recent comments on Ambassador Ma Keqing's 'allegedly imcomplete, inaccurate and misleading' relaying of information to Beijing. The Chinese Foreign Ministry has made representations to the Philippine Embassy in Beijing for these irresponsible remarks,” Zhang said in short remarks e-mailed to the press.

”Since the beginning of the Huangyan Island incident, Ambassador Ma and the Chinese embassy have been carrying out their duties faithfully and effectively. They have worked tirelessly for the proper settlement of the pending issue between the two countries and the sound and stable development of bilateral relations.”

The Chinese side has been griping over the timing of the soon-to-be concluded annual “Balikatan” joint military exercises between the Philippines and the US, where China had not been invited in the combined exercises portion despite a Manila-Beijing defense agreement inked in 2005.

China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and the US are dialogue partners of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), but only China was left out in mostly table-top drills on disaster preparedness and humanitarian assistance. ASEAN members Indonesia and Singapore participated.

ASEAN is one of the fora that the Philippines has turned to for support of its claim not only of Scarborough, west of the Philippine province of Zambales, but also of the Spratlys group of islands west of Palawan province.

ASEAN action

But ASEAN has not reacted so far to the multilateral approach—as against the bilateral route espoused by China—that the Philippines insists in settling its differences with Beijing. Beijing believes ASEAN has no persona to deal with such territorial question.

Del Rosario noted though that while Washington is Manila’s treaty ally, it has expressed agreement that there be “no use of force at all” in settling the South China Sea issue and that negotiations for settlement should be rules-based and in the purview of international law.

The talks in Washington are in the context of freedom of navigation and unimpeded commerce in the South China Sea, according to Del Rosario. He said all countries with interest in the South China should be concerned about its safety.

However, China prides itself in the fact that the "Nanhai," as they call the South China Sea, is peaceful and there has been no conflict there and that international navigation has been unobstructed.

With just at least two vessels on each side left at the lagoon, the situation in Scarborough is for the moment seemingly “normal,” Del Rosario noted.

But he also mentioned that there were two incidents on Wednesday of fly-bys of “unidentified aircraft” over the area, one occurring around midnight and the second at past 1 a.m. He did not elaborate.

Del Rosario took pains to explain why a fourth meeting between DFA’s Maria Teresa Lazaro and Ambassador Ma occurred early this week at the DFA headquarters.

Poaching of endangered species

He said that DFA wanted to reiterate that no agreement was reached with Beijing early on regarding the presence of Chinese fishing and surveillance vessels in Philippine territory, up until the time of the fishermen’s departure from Scarborough with their harvest of endangered species such as giant clams, sharks and corals.

The species were among those under study by the Philippines under its Fisheries Code and the poaching was clearly a violation of international laws on endangered species, he said.

DFA was incensed that while negotiations for how to solve the problem peacefully were going on, in the spirit of the launching of the China-Philippines Year of Foreign Exchanges, the Chinese vessel departed for mainland China with their loot and was now beyond reach of Philippine authorities.

“So there was no agreement,” according to Del Rosario, who expressed that, on the contrary, this argument was used by Beijing to explain its “more aggressive” stance in the stand-off. ”The element of truth” was lacking in the messages relayed to Beijing, said Del Rosario.

While stressing anew that ASEAN’s support is part of DFA’s political and diplomatic track on the impasse over the territorial claims, Del Rosario said that it cannot tell ASEAN what to do.

US support 

As a treaty ally, US support is there in terms of Manila maintaining what he termed a “minimum credible defense stand” to augment the country’s diplomatic capacity. The US advice is for the Philippines to seek arbitration of its conflict with China through United Nations instruments.

It appears that going to the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) is not yet a foregone conclusion for the DFA, with Del Rosario saying that four other fora are being contemplated. But the details cannot yet be made public.

As far as ASEAN is concerned, Del Rosario said that in the Code of Conduct (COC) for the parties claiming ownership in part or in whole of the South China Sea, the Philippines reiterated that a framework for naming the “major elements” segregating the “disputed” and “not disputed” areas be set without China—even if it is a Dialogue Partner—in the internal discussions.

“This would maintain the centrality of the ASEAN,” Del Rosario explained.

He admitted, though, that Manila “is running into a little problem with that.” Cambodia, the current chair of the ASEAN and perceived to be China’s close ally in the ASEAN, “believes that China should be invited early so that it can be part of selecting the major element for the COC and be part of the drafting committee.”

Aside from the diplomatic/political and legal tracks, del Rosario said the economic track is being considered.

But a joint cooperative effort “while shelving differences,” say, in gas exploration, would be out of the question. ”I think for us to allow a Chinese development modality in areas which are ours—clearly it has to be under Philippine laws,” said Del Rosario.

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/InterAksyon.Com | April 27, 2012 |

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