What a handshake means
P-Noy and Chinese President Xi Jinping shook hands in Beijing last week during the Apec Summit, a brief encounter that, a learned observer says, could signal “a potential breakthrough in the strained relations between the two countries.”
The strain is the result mainly of clashing claims over islands—some say they are nothing but rock outcroppings—in the disputed waters of the South China Sea, also known as the West Philippine Sea.
If a breakthrough seems imminent, I wonder what impact recent developments will have on the ongoing thaw in our once-chilly, if not outright hostile, relations. One is the conviction Monday of nine Chinese fishermen who were found guilty by a Palawan court of poaching and environmental crimes in waters off the Hasa-Hasa Shoal. The fishermen, two of whom were released early on because they were minors, have served the six-month jail term imposed by the judge, so they could very well be released once they pay the fine imposed by the court.
The other development is the response of China to US criticism of a Chinese reclamation project in the disputed waters, including the building of an airstrip. A Chinese general has told off the Americans to stay out of the dispute, accusing them of being “obviously biased” since it has said nothing about earlier building projects, allegedly for military use, of the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia.
China’s response seems but par for the course given the regional power’s assertion of control—if not ownership—over the waters and everything else in or on them. Such arrogance has not been taken well by China’s neighbors, including the Philippines, who are voicing ever loudly their objections to China’s encroachment and refusal to negotiate, even in international tribunals.
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Indeed, if anything, the Philippines has been the “most behaved” among all the parties disputing control and ownership of and sovereignty over the area in question.
This is the assertion made by Dr. Cesi Cruz of the University of British Columbia (UBC) in a forum, “Sea of Discontent: A Roundtable on the South China Sea Dispute,” that had as resource persons, aside from Cruz, five other academics and experts studying the issues. They were: Richard Paisley, director of the UBC Global Transboundary International Waters; Dr. Glen Hearns, principal at Aristods Consulting and codirector at the UBC Transboundary International Waters; Dr. Paul Schuler, postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University; Prof. Ian Townsend-Gault, associate professor at the UBC Faculty of Law and director of the UBC Southeast Asian Legal Studies; and Dr. Alexander Woodside, professor emeritus at the UBC Department of History.
At the roundtable, the Philippines’ recourse to international arbitration over the West Philippine Sea dispute was supported by members of the panel and the participants. Cruz defended the Philippine government’s decision to bring the matter to arbitration before the United Nations, within the framework of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos).
“The Philippines is justified in pursuing arbitration because China already occupies the disputed islands, anyway,” Cruz stated. “If China wins, it will continue to occupy, but if the Philippines wins, China could either be persuaded to withdraw, or if it refuses to comply and continues to occupy the islands, it would be doing so clearly without legal basis.”
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A disclosure: Cruz is my niece, an assistant professor at the UBC Institute of Asian Research and UBC Department of Political Science, with a PhD in political science from the University of California in San Diego, and an MA in political science from Canadaís McGill University.
In fact, it was her proud mother, my sister Chona, who sent me a copy of a report prepared by the Philippine consulate in Vancouver on the proceedings of the roundtable.
In a letter, Cesi protests that she is “no expert in any of this,” sitting in a panel with “people with far more expertise in international law and maritime issues.” But an important distinction is that she was the only one “who was actually from the country I was presenting,” although she had to take care to emphasize that she was speaking as an academic and not as a representative of the Philippines.
Thus, Cesi chose to focus on the domestic political implications of the dispute. In her analysis, too many “bigger” domestic political issues preoccupy Filipinos (as gleaned from public opinion polls) “unlike in Vietnam where these issues are a huge deal domestically (with lots of protests against China, etc.).”
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Cesi makes special mention of the Philippine consul general in the Vancouver Consulate, Neil Ferrer, whom she describes as “a real expert in maritime issues and worked on maritime issues at the UN before taking this post,” and with whom she consulted and looks forward to working with closely, not just in her presentation but in her future work “moving forward.”
At one point, Cesi recalls, she compared China’s policy on joint development as “similar to my three-year old’s position: being a big believer in sharing, but only when it comes to other people’s stuff!”
Other experts warn that we should be under no illusions that “territorial and maritime disputes can be resolved overnight. The path to a resolution will remain a challenging one and will call for a high degree of statesmanship on both sides combined with a spirit of pragmatism and compromise.”
So maybe, in the scheme of things, a handshake, no matter how brief, already constitutes a promising beginning, a harbinger of better relations, no matter intervening irritants. After all, we’re not dealing with toddlers here!