Philippine ambassador’s views on challenges and opportunities in bilateral ties

By Zhang Xin Source:Global Times Published: 2017/4/16 21:33:39

Editor's Note:

Last week, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte cancelled a plan to visit an island which the country claims in the disputed South China Sea and raise the Philippine flag there, because the Philippines "values the friendship with China." He announced his planned visit a week ago, but was immediately met with a response from China.

The Global Times reporter Zhang Xin (GT) had an exclusive interview with Jose Santiago L. Sta. Romana (Sta. Romana), the Philippine Ambassador to China. Sta. Romana has lived in China for decades and is hailed as a real "China hand." The following is an excerpt from the hour-long interview, in which he shared his views on the opportunities and obstacles in Sino-Philippine ties. 

Jose Santiago L. Sta. Romana, the Philippine Ambassador to China Photo: Li Hao/GT

GT: Sino-Philippine relations reached a turning point after President Duterte's election and especially during his visit to China last year. What's your take on the motivations behind his actions?

Sta. Romana:
President Duterte just became president when the tribunal results came out and the Philippines, of course, supported it and expressed willingness to implement it. But China took a different position, and quite strongly. So, with this difference, the question was, was there a way to resolve it? And that was when he designated a special envoy to China. It was the former president, Fidel Ramos, and I was part of that mission. We held talks in Hong Kong, and this was like the ice breaker. His basic approach is not to put the disputes front and center, not to let it be an obstacle to the development of relations, but rather, to return to the right track. So it is on this basis that the president decided to push forward with his state visit. And as a result, we have agreements in different fields. And now we are in the process of further promoting and improving the relations

GT: President Duterte recently ordered troops to occupy and fortify some islands in the disputed South China Sea. What do you think is the real intention of the President by taking the unexpected actions at a time when the Sino-Philippine ties are in the midst of a stable development?

Sta. Romana:
The recent pronouncement regarding fortification of the islands and reefs the Philippines has occupied since the 1970s and 1980s is not a complete change of policy in so far as the Philippines is concerned with respect to China. What it really means is the Philippines, particularly the Duterte administration, wants to improve the living conditions of the soldiers that are occupying these islands. Since the 1970s, Philippines has occupied them. And the president's decision is that we are not going to occupy new islands or get involved with territories that are being occupied by other countries. We'll stay and improve relations with China. But it also means that our position is to protect what we view as part of our territorial sovereignty, and try to improve the conditions of the personnel who are there. The hope is that this will be accomplished without adding any tension, without causing any misunderstanding

GT: The US recently adopted a very aggressive approach in dealing with Syria and North Korea. How do you think President Trump would proceed with the disputes in Southeast Asia? Is there a possibility of war?

Sta. Romana:
Our hope is that the US will play a constructive role. We are in a region where there is growing competition between the dominant power of the US and the rising power that is China. We do not advocate war or the use of force. And we would call upon all parties involved to resort to negotiations and dialogue. And most of all, we do not wish the Philippines to be a battleground between the major powers.

Everything has proven to be possible in the past six months. But I think from the recent summit meeting between leaders of China and the US, we can see that it's also possible for the two countries to communicate and ease their tensions. The problem won't be resolved overnight. But at least it's an improvement considering where we were in the past few months. So in that sense, we have to prepare for war, but I think there is room to maneuver via diplomacy and dialogue.

GT:You told Chinese media years ago that it is risky for the Philippines to be involved in the game between China and the US. So what do you think are the best policies for the Philippines toward China and the US?

Sta. Romana:
It's going to be a complicated course we'll try to navigate. The president described it as "to make sure we will proceed from our own national interests." That is, to be friendly toward China and to maintain cultural and historical ties with the US. We do not wish to be allied to either power. This is not an easy course and there will be changes along the way. So it is, in a sense, choosing the path of an independent foreign policy, proceeding from the interests of the Filipino people. After all, diplomacy should serve the interests of the people. Of course, in an interdependent international world, it is almost impossible to remain independent or fully autonomous. But what we wish to achieve is to maintain good relations with all the major powers.

GT: The Sino-Philippine ties have just started to warm up again, and President Duterte faces pressure from domestic pro-US forces when he tries to develop relations with China. As the ambassador to China, how will you deal with the challenges? Do you see a lasting development momentum of bilateral ties, or is it just during Mr. Duterte's presidency, as there is distrust among Filipinos against Chinese?

Sta. Romana:
President Duterte is a veteran politician. He was able to win with a convincing margin. I have no doubt that he will be able to deal with the challenges. However, we cannot expect the opposition to disappear. While there was a dominant confrontation approach toward China, now there is the conciliatory approach. And those who support the confrontational approach are still around. The reality is there is a lot of distrust toward China. However, if you look at the trend, the most recent survey showed for the first time China has garnered a positive impression. It just takes time.

I think what is important here is to show that the approach of discussion and dialogue can actually ease the tension and can work to benefit both the Philippines and China. The sustainability of any foreign policy will depend on how you present it to the people, how they feel about it, whether it upholds their interest, and how you are able to institutionalize it.

GT: It was reported that China and the Philippines will hold direct talks on the maritime dispute in May. What specific questions do you believe will be on the agenda? Will it set an example for the establishment of the South China Sea code of conduct?

Sta. Romana:
What we hope to achieve is to have a bilateral platform where we can discuss the most challenging issues. We'll start with the most pressing ones, for example, how to further ease the tensions in the South China Sea, particularly, how to make sure it doesn't get worse. We need to create a maritime preserve that's open to fishing for those who traditionally fish there, in a small-scale. We also need to find out how to lower the militarization so as to promote more trust and eliminate suspicion. The agenda still has yet to be determined by both sides. And this is the initial meeting. We expect we'll hold it once or twice a year. Sometimes just talking about the problem is already a big step in understanding and minimizing any miscalculation. This will be the start of a dialogue.

GT: The Sino-Philippine trade volume has seen a huge increase as the bilateral ties gains great momentum. Do you think this type of diplomacy can be a model for other Asian countries?

Sta. Romana:
Of course each country will have its own diplomacy model. But what the Philippines is doing is very similar to what Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Thailand, Myanmar are doing. In a sense, the Philippines is joining the mainstream of ASEAN.

What we are doing right now is to redress the problems of the past. We were identified with our traditional ally almost to the extent that we were in a hostile relationship with China. Now we are steering away, because our foreign policy has to be based on our own interests. And because of that, there's recognition that there may be a divergence with the national interests between the Philippines and other countries, but we try to promote cooperation with our convergence in the national interests. So, on the one hand, we have our own foreign policy, but on the other hand, the course we have chosen is really in line with what other ASEAN countries are doing.

GT: People call you an "old China hand," what's your impression of China? What will be the main characteristics of China and its people you would talk about if you want to introduce the nation to your countrymen?

Sta. Romana:
We have to recognize people don't often understand the Chinese historical heritage, the pride of the Chinese people in its history, and how that shapes the Chinese mindset. And China now is rising and is trying to recover the position that it used to have in the region and the world. But China, being more economically developed now, wants to play a bigger role in regional and world affairs. And this is a reality that we have to accept or to recognize, because China is a neighbor of the Philippines. So it is very important to understand the Chinese mindset, because in doing so, one will be able to appreciate how China acts and behaves now and also how to deal with China. But, China also has to understand the Filipino people, they have a different social and political system, they are also proud of their heritage and country. It's only on the basis of equality and mutual understanding will we be able to achieve peace and progress and common prosperity.

Newspaper headline: Navigating a complicated course


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