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Quiet diplomacy key to resolving sea row

There seems to be an impasse on how to resolve the maritime dispute between the Philippines and China, with Beijing insisting that Manila should discard the ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague and President Duterte announcing that the same ruling would be used as guidepost in planned bilateral talks with China.

Last week the President assured visiting US Secretary of State John Kerry that any bilateral talks with China would be anchored on the ruling of the arbitral court. Washington’s view is that all claimants to the whole or parts of the disputed waters should respect the rule of law and abide by the decision of the PCA.

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“The rights of all countries under the law should always be respected. That’s what international law is about. That’s what a rules-based order is about,” Kerry said.

It is quite ironic that the United States is calling on claimant-countries to honor the arbitral court’s ruling when in fact it has not even ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), which is the basis for the PCA ruling.

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On the other hand, while China is a signatory to the Unclos, it has adamantly refused to recognize the PCA ruling, calling it “unlawful since Day One” of the proceedings.

Former president Fidel V. Ramos, who has accepted the position of special envoy to China, is now walking on a tightrope. His dilemma is how to resolve the conflicting stand of Mr. Duterte, his principal, and Beijing’s intransigence.

Although Ramos is perceived to be a friend of China, there has been no official reaction from Beijing on his designation. And there is no assurance that Beijing will listen to Ramos considering that Mr. Duterte has already laid his cards on the table.

But since the PCA has ruled in its favor, the Philippines should conduct quiet diplomacy without fanfare and publicity. There must now be a total media embargo on the bilateral talks, granting that Beijing will agree to negotiate on Manila’s terms.

There should also be parallel back-channeling efforts, to be conducted in case Ramos fails to achieve his mission. The advantage of secret negotiations is that these would prevent embarrassment on the part of both parties in case there is a breakdown in the talks.

The Department of Foreign Affairs should not announce anything while the talks are ongoing. Only when the final draft of a memorandum of agreement is ready for the signature of President Duterte, possibly during a state visit to Beijing, should the media and the public be informed about it.

A good example of this kind of diplomacy is the secret trip of then US National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger to China late in April 1971. When the US government got the go-signal from Beijing that it was willing to receive American emissaries, Kissinger embarked on an official trip to Pakistan. While in Islamabad, he feigned illness and told reporters that he would be resting for two days in a villa outside the city.

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The two days of “rest” was enough time for Kissinger to travel from Pakistan to Beijing and back. In his autobiography, Kissinger said he had 17 hours of talks with Zhou Enlai that paved the way for the historic visit of President Richard Nixon to Beijing and the reestablishment of diplomatic ties between the United States and China.

Another example is the series of secret negotiations held between the Philippines and Libya during the martial law regime. The negotiations, which were kept tightly under wraps, paved the way for the visit to Tripoli of the then first lady, Imelda Marcos. Her talks with Moammar Gadhafi, since deceased, led to the signing of the Tripoli Agreement on Dec. 23, l976.

Meanwhile, the Philippines and China should initiate confidence-building measures that would ease the tension in the contested area.

An excellent example of such measures is the signing of a landmark “friendship agreement” between the government of Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region in China and the Philippine province of Palawan.

The signing ceremony between Vice Gov. Wang Heshan and Palawan Gov. Jose Alvarez was held at the provincial Capitol in Ningxia last week. Wang said the agreement would continue to improve relations between China and the Philippines.

According to the agreement, “the two sides will carry out, in accordance with the principles of equality and mutual benefit, exchanges and cooperation between Palawan and Ningxia in various forms in the field of economy, trade, science and technology, culture, education, sports, health, personnel, etc. to promote common prosperity and development.”

Wang expressed hope that the relationship between the Philippines and China, which is roughly 600 years old, would continue “for another 600 years.”

As a confidence-building measure, China can also quietly remove its Coast Guard from the contested Scarborough Shoal and allow not just Chinese but also Filipinos, Japanese, Vietnamese and Taiwanese to fish in the area.

Alito L. Malinao is the former diplomatic reporter and news editor of the Manila Standard. Now teaching journalism subjects at Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila, he is the author of the book “Journalism for Filipinos.”

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TAGS: bilateral talks, China, fidel v. ramos, John Kerry, Permanent Court of Arbitration, Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, South China Sea, UN convention on the law of the sea, Unclos, United States, West Philippine Sea
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