BY ROGER M. BALANZA
Diplomacy and mutual economic benefits is the key to the peaceful resolution of the Philippine conflict with China over the West Philippine Sea.
Instead of maging war with the world’s second biggest economy, the Philippines could convert the conflict into benefit by sharing resources of the disputed islands with the Chinese.
This is the position of presidential candidate Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte in the dispute that has placed relations between China and the Philippines in a precarious edge.
Presidential aspirant Rodrigo Duterte at the Rotary Club of Manila forum speaking on how he would solve the West Philippine Sea dispute with China
If he wins the race in May, Duterte, standard bearer of the opposition Partido Demokratiko Pilipino-Laban, said he would settle the conflict by sharing resources in the disputed territory with the Chinese.
Duterte’s approach is a simple formula: Sit down in negotiation with the Chinese to discuss economic cooperation.
China covets the West Philippine Sea due to its strategic location; control over the territory means naval power for the Asian giant.
But also at the core of the territorial dispute is money: the West Philippine Sea is a rich fishing ground; underneath are large deposits of gas and oil.
For Duterte, a military confrontation is out of the question… a case of a David fighting a Goliath.
“We cannot defeat China. We will be pulverized if we go to war. So I will just tell them, ‘If you want to talk, let’s talk,” Duterte told a Manila forum attended by a mix of students, entrepreneurs and business leaders.
He revealed his position on the West Philippine Sea dispute with China as a “presidential response” to a statement made two days earlier by Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua who called on the Philippines to be “flexible and intelligent” in its bilateral relations with China.
The Philippines claims that large areas of the West Philippine Sea fall within its 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone, where it has the exclusive rights to fish and explore resources.
The Chinese dismiss the Philippine claim saying the West Philippine Sea (aka South China Sea) is “historically” Chinese territory.
The Chinese has built structures in some of the islands and its Navy has been driving away Filipino fishermen from the marine resource-rich territory.
The West Philippine Sea is also said to be rich in gas and oil deposits.
Duterte said he would propose to China that the disputed territory be declared as a mutual corridor where the two countries can conduct joint exploration and production of gas and oil.
But he believes that the Philippines has a rightful claim over the disputed islands that Chinese illegally occupied.
Duterte said he will not compromise the Philippine claim over the West Philippine Sea even as he propose bilateral trade and joint economic undertaking with the Chinese in the disputed island.
Duterte’s approach to the dispute is similar to that of the administration of then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, which entered into a Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking with China and Vietnam where the 3 countries agreed to conduct joint explorations.
Another presidential candidate Vice President Jejomar Binay is taking the route of Duterte.
Taking a different stand, President Benigno Aquino has sought international arbitration on the dispute. This position is also embraced by Mar Roxas, the standard bearer of the ruling Liberal Party of Aquino. The Philippines is pursuing an arbitration case before a United Nations-backed arbitral tribunal in The Hague, the Netherlands. Beijing has refused to recognize the Philippine legal action, preferring resolution of the conflict without intervention of a third party.
Duterte said the Philippines would be the loser if the arbitration case cannot be resolved early.
As the case drags, the Chinese continues its occupation of the islands, he said.
Duterte said he would resolve the issue in two to three years of his presidency by talking with China to end the dispute over the West Philippine Sea.