“I think China-Philippine relations would be different without US interference.” – Wu Shicun, National Institute for South China Sea Studies
By RAYMUND VILLANUEVA
HAIKUO CITY, Hainan Province, People’s Republic of China–China’s leading expert on South China Sea issues recommends bilateral talks between the Philippines and this country as the only way forward to settle disputes particularly at the West Philippine Sea.
National Institute for South China Sea Studies (NISCSS) president Wu Shicun said before 15 Filipino journalists here that “(It is) Impossible to settle the disputes in the foreseeable future through multilateral arbitration.”
The expert is referring to the Aquino government’s decision to file an arbitration case before the United Nations last January on the basis of the United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Seas (Unclos).
The territorial dispute has soured political and economic relations between the Philippines and China, with the conflict sometimes escalating into arrests of citizens from both countries who are fishing in the disputed waters.
The Philippines is protesting China’s self-declared “U-shaped line” (also called the Nine-Dash Line), which, it claims, China already abandoned when it ratified the Unclos in 1996.
China claims five islands and other reefs as part of its offshore territory where it built both military and civilian structures that the Philippines said are within its 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone.
“In 2006, China already informed the secretary general of the United Nations (UN) that it will not submit nor will it implement the tribunal’s decision on the case,” Wu said.
“Even if the UN Tribunal makes its final decision the issues concerning the South China Sea would still be there,” he said.
“China’s leadership is not keen on solving the issue through international arbitration,” Wu said.
The expert said China is looking at the dispute with other claimant countries as a territorial dispute and not as a maritime issue.
The NISCSS showed a copy of a map as old as 1767 that included the Spratlys group of islands as part of Chinese territory during the Qing Dynasty. Its original is in Taiwan, it said.
In December 12, 1946 the Chinese government under Chiang Kai Shek renamed, along other islands, the Spratlys as Nanwei Islands following reclamation missions, military occupation and approval of reclamation plans.
Wu also underscored that in 2002, China and the Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean) member countries signed the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) which committed to “…bilateral talks through peaceful consultations.”
The Philippines stopped references to the declaration after 2009, the NISCSS president said.
He said the government of Benigno Aquino III should not have submitted the arbitration case to a multilateral forum such as the UN as it violates the DOC.
Instead, the expert encourages the continuation of bilateral talks between China and the other South East Asian claimants, including the Philippines.
“In my personal opinion, it would be better if we focus on improving our bilateral relationship,” he said.
Pressed if this would be possible in the foreseeable future Wu said, “Perhaps in 2016, China-Philippine relations would be better.”
Wu clarified however that he is just echoing the opinion of his academic counterparts in the Philippines when he lectured at a Manila university earlier this year.
Pressed further on the restoration of closer relationships between China and the Philippines when President Aquino attends the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation in the Philippines in Beijing later this year, Wu said “The problem is the erosion of trust…The South China Sea (dispute) is now a major obstacle.”
The expert sees bilateral talks between the Philippines and China as the only possibility.
“If mutual cooperation improves the Philippines may have greater trade relations with China,” he said.
He cited China’s trade with Malaysia, which amounted to U$100 billion in 2013 while its trade with the Philippines stood at “only” U$20 billion.
Vietnam also recently signed a new trade agreement with China despite their dispute over the Paracel Islands, which China calls Taiping Islands.
“It is my hope it will be as well with the Philippines,” Wu said.
Wu blames the Aquino government’s signing of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (Edca) with the US government during President Barack Obama’s recent visit to the Philippines.
He said the Edca is a barrier to improved ties with China.
“The US uses the freedom of navigation issue on the South China Sea to interfere. The agreement is meant to gather intelligence on Chinese coastlines and somehow contain China. It is interference, basically,” he said.
“China is not happy to see such treaties, particularly in the disputed areas,” Wu said.