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NEWS UPDATES Asean Affairs    26 September  2012

Philippines-China negotiations in deadlock



That’s how Philippines' Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas described diplomatic negotiations with China over disputed islands in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).

At a news briefing in the Palace, Roxas reported on his 45-minute meeting on Friday with Chinese Vice president Xi Jinping in which both sides insisted on their countries’ territorial sovereignty over the region.

“Nothing is off the table. All the options I reserved for our president, and I think that’s a good sign; that’s a good accomplishment that the full range of options remains with our president, so that he executes the foreign policy that he envisions for our country in advancing our national interest,” Roxas said.

What Aquino achieved in sending Roxas to China was to tell the Chinese leadership that the Philippines “reserves the right to pursue our national interest in whatever practicable way the president deems it,” Roxas said.

The secretary clarified that the country had not yet chosen a bilateral instead of a multilateral approach to the territorial dispute in Panatag Shoal (Scarbourough Shoal).

The president sent Roxas as his special envoy to the China-Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Expo in Nanning, China, tasking him with conveying to Chinese President Hu Jintao through Xi the Philippines’ desire to improve relations with China and help find a peaceful solution to their territorial dispute.

Roxas saw no change in the position of Manila and Beijing in the interim until Xi, the president-in-waiting, takes office next year.

He also had a separate hour-long meeting with Fu Ying, vice minister for foreign affairs, and invited him to visit the country.

“I think it’s important to note that all of this is happening at a time when China is going through its once-in-a-decade generational leadership change. So I don’t expect much progress in the interim, at least until that leadership change has been completed,” Roxas said.

During the meeting, Roxas told Xi of the “near permanence” of Chinese vessels at Panatag, which, he argued, was “legally, historically and geographically ours.”

However, Xi insisted on the Chinese ownership of the entire South China Sea, Roxas said.

“Make no mistake, we, the Philippines, clearly conveyed our sovereignty claim to the Panatag Shoal,” Roxas said.

Still, Roxas believed that maintaining an open channel of communication with Chinese officials was imperative amid the increasingly global role being played by China.

“I conveyed to Vice president Xi (that) talk is better than no talk. So the fact that we are talking at the highest levels, the fact that messages are reliably conveyed, I think, it’s a good foundation,” he said.

But he quickly added:

“There is no improvement (in the bilateral relations because) both sides are still saying: ‘That’s ours.’ So there hasn’t been any change. What changed was the perception that both sides now recognise that while we’re saying, ‘it’s ours,’ we see that our relations are multidimensional, and perhaps the stumbling blocks to friendly relations can be resolved through (peaceful) means. That’s what happened here.”

The secretary expected the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) and its Chinese counterparts to “build upon whatever foundations, or whatever fundamentals, (that) may have been established in this meeting.”

But in an admission mirroring the state of affairs between Manila and Beijing, Roxas characterised his designation as special envoy was only “one-time,” preferring to let the DFA deal with China’s hard-line stance at the moment.

“They are the principal executors of the foreign affairs policy of the president and that is how it will (be),” he said.

On the brighter side, both sides still wanted to “preserve (diplomatic) ties” by focusing on other dimensions of the bilateral relations such as trade, tourism, and historical and cultural ties said Roxas.

 “I think that is what important is that we stopped the deterioration, that we established the other linkages such as in trade, investment. We fixed what we can fix, we removed as many irritants as we could, so that there is no further deterioration,” he said.

Roxas expressed hopes that ties would improve when Xi takes over. He said he did not wish to be presumptuous and call his mission a success because there was no agreement to resolve the dispute.

The Philippines did honour China’s wish not to “internationalise” the dispute but he said there was no assurance that China would do the same.

“The Chinese side expressed openness to discussing the code of conduct (on the) West Philippine Sea. But none of the details were expressed. I think this meeting was to restart the engagement, isn’t it? The details will be discussed by the negotiators of the DFA as well as with their counterparts. So, this was meant to reestablish what had been a frayed relationship,” Roxas said.

The Panatag Shoal standoff in April between Philippine Coast Guard ships and Chinese fishing vessels over illegal poaching resulted in “frayed relations” between the country and China, he said.

“We’re reestablishing our relations…there are cultural ties, there are trade and investment and other ties,” he said.

Roxas was also tasked by Aquino to deliver the message he had intended to convey to President Hu at a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) leaders’ summit in Vladivostok, Russia, on September 9. The meeting fell through due to a conflict of schedules.

“I read word for word the notes that the president gave me,” he said. “Vice president Xi was very appreciative. He specifically mentioned in the early part of our meeting that the president sending a special envoy for him means or shows the high-value of the importance with which President Aquino gives Philippine-China relations, and for that, he was appreciative.”

To “go deeper into some of the discussions,” Xi sent Fu “to do another round (of meetings), and that is where many of the details were discussed,” Roxas said.

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