Meeting jaw to jaw is better than war.”
This quote attributed to the late British Prime Minister Winston Churchill can probably best describe the continuing talks between Manila and Beijing over their row in the South China Sea.
In Manila’s eyes, Beijing has illegally claimed Manila’s Exclusive Economic Zone in the South China as part of China’s territorial waters and encroached on Philippine territorial waters.
For its part, Beijing sees Manila’s efforts to protect its EEZ and territorial waters as an illegal encroachment into China’s sovereign maritime territory.
Despite the basic conflict in their respective stances, Manila and Beijing agreed to discuss their differences by setting up a bilateral consultation mechanism (BCM) on the South China Sea.
The two sides have already held two meetings of the BCM.
The first meeting of the BCM was held in Guiyang, Guizhou Province, China on May 19, 2017. Philippine Ambassador to China Jose Santiago Sta. Romana represented Manila while Chinese Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Liu Zhenmin spoke for Beijing.
That talks were described in official press statements as “frank, in-depth and friendly.”
During that first meeting, the two sides agreed to meet regularly alternately in the Philippines and China “once every six months.” The two also agreed to setting up “relevant technical working groups” to promote “practical maritime cooperation.”
The second meeting took place on Feb. 13 in Manila. Heading the Chinese delegation for the BCM was Vice Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou while Foreign Affairs Undersecretary for Policy Enrique A. Manalo led the Philippine delegation.
The second meeting was described in the joint official press release as “a frank and cordial exchange of views on issues concerning the South China Sea.”
“With the objective of maintaining and promoting peace and stability in the region, both sides discussed ways to manage and prevent incidents at sea, promote dialogue and cooperation on maritime issues, and enhance mutual trust and confidence,” according to the official joint press release.
Though both sides do recognize that their respective countries face “contentious maritime issues,” the two sides reaffirmed the “importance of maintaining and promoting peace and stability, freedom of navigation in and overflight above the South China Sea, freedom of international commerce and other peaceful uses of the sea, addressing territorial and jurisdictional disputes by peaceful means, without resorting to the threat or use of force, through friendly consultations and negotiations by sovereign states directly concerned, in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law, including the Charter of the United Nations and the 1982 UNCLOS.”
The official joint press statement also revealed that the technical working groups mentioned in the first BCM meeting will be convening to focus on “beneficial joint initiatives” in the areas of “fisheries, oil and gas, marine scientific research and marine environmental protection, and political security, in the framework of the BCM.”
Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter S. Cayetano confirmed that the matter of joint exploration was discussed during the second BCM.
“This bilateral consultation mechanism is also here to strengthen the momentum of cooperation in matters of common interest such as marine environmental protection, coordination between Coast Guards, and the protection of our fishermen, as well the possibility of joint exploration,” he was quoted as saying in a press statement released by the Department of Foreign Affairs.
According to the DFA press release, the Philippine side brought up Manila’s territorial claims and sovereignty rights issues, and discussed how to manage and prevent incidents in the disputed waters with the Chinese delegation.
“Both sides expressed their countries’ respective positions on the ongoing territorial disputes,” the DFA statement said. “While there are points of disagreement, both delegations are in agreement that the best way forward is to cooperate and properly manage issues of mutual concern and preserve security and stability in the region.”
Cayetano emphasized the important role the BCM played in defusing tension between China and the Philippines.
“The BCM serves as a venue for the Philippines and China to manage their differences amicably, and to show the world how disputes can be handled in a peaceful manner and how cooperation and collaboration can benefit the two countries’ peoples despite a complicated and difficult dispute,” said the DFA press release.
Cayetano added that protecting the country’s interests were foremost objective of the Duterte administration.
“The Duterte Administration is unwavering in its commitment to protect our country’s territorial claims and maritime entitlements,” Cayetano said. “Let me also say that we are also of the position that ongoing territorial disputes should be resolved in a manner consistent with the spirit of good neighborly relations and the 1982 UNCLOS.”
“Let me note that our fishermen are back exercising their livelihood in Scarborough Shoal, and overall, the situation in the greater South China Sea has become more stable than in past years,” he added. “Just because we are not in an open shouting match with China, or arguing in public, doesn’t mean that the issues aren’t being dealt with decisively. On the contrary, we are not only exerting efforts but also getting things done,” said the Philippines’ top diplomat.
With regards to the 1982 UNCLOS that Cayetano mentioned, Beijing has official stated that it will not honor the ruling of the UNCLOS Arbitral Tribunal on plea filed by Manila under the Aquino administration. The UNCLOS arbitral tribunal’s ruling in the Hague said that China’s claims to the South China Sea were invalid. G