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Aileen San Pablo-Baviera

The Republic of the Philippines interest in that part of the Spratlys group closest to it, which it calls Kalayaan (Freedom) Islands, was first articulated shortly after it achieved independence in 1946. In the 1950s, there were spats between the Philippines and the Taipei government over the presence and activities of both sides in the Spratlys. At that time, Taiwan already occupied the biggest island of the group (Taiping or Itu Aba) while Filipino sailors and fishermen frequented the area.

Philippine assertions of sovereignty increased from the mid-1950s on, and Manila began to occupy some uninhabited features in the late 1960s. Through the 1970s and early part of the 1980s, the Marcos government took steps to consolidate sovereignty over Kalayaan through legislations and other acts of state.

Presumably occupied with internal affairs and more serious border problems with its neighbors, China did not aggressively pursue its claim to the Spratlys through these decades. On the occasions when it did pay great attention to its claim, this would take the form of actions directed against Vietnam—which did not stem from the South China Sea dispute per se but were influenced by other factors—rather than against any other claimants.

In January 1995, the Philippine Navy discovered that China had occupied and built structures on Mischief Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands only 135 nautical miles from the western coast of Palawan Province. This incident was a milestone in Philippine-China relations, heretofore characterized by cordial ties. China’s occupation of Mischief Reef was perceived in the Philippines as the most serious external challenge to the country’s sovereignty and security in recent times. After the discovery of Chinese presence on Mischief Reef, Philippine-China relations dived to the lowest point ever. Manila responded with a strong and public reaction to what was seen as a provocative act by China of occupying territory which is very close to the Philippines and well within its exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

Mischief Reef represented a wake-up call to the Philippine defense establishment which heretofore had been preoccupied with internal security problems rather than threats from abroad. Subsequently, there were more frequent apprehensions of Chinese and other nationals who were engaged in poaching, piracy, smuggling, and other illegal activities in the Spratlys, and other areas immediately surrounding the Philippine archipelago, as compared to previous years. In many cases the offenders would be arrested and tried in Philippine courts, their vessels impounded. Each of these incidents were occasions for the filing of diplomatic protests and representations, especially between Manila and Beijing.

This situation underscored the inability of the Philippine Navy and Coast Guard to patrol the long Philippine coastline and extensive EEZ. It helped provide justification for the Philippine Congress’ approval of a modernization program for the Armed Forces of the Philippines. Certain politicians even called for strengthening the Philippine Mutual Defense Treaty with the United States as a counter to any further expansion of China.

In terms of public opinion in the Philippines, the dispute has helped create a negative image of China. Events and statements related to the dispute have been widely reported and commented on in Philippine media in a manner which tends to portray China in the worst possible light. Public statements by high-ranking Filipino officials and politicians, often intended for domestic consumption and at times no more than bluster, have moreover tended to add fuel to the fire by their bellicosity.

Nevertheless, the most intensive period in relations between the two countries, in terms of high-level exchange of visits and dialogues, came on the heels of the Mischief Reef dispute. This illustrates their mutual recognition of the importance of expanding understanding and keeping the door to dialogue open at this critical juncture in relations.

It is also worth noting that despite the persistence of tensions relating to territorial and maritime resource disputes, other aspects of relations were not visibly affected. Economic, cultural, scientific and technical cooperation continued. In particular, trade even registered a steep rise beginning in 1995, mainly due to an increase in Philippine imports from China.

Fundamental differences in Philippine and Chinese perceptions of the Spratlys can be observed. First, on the importance of the dispute in overall foreign policy, China does not consider the dispute very important at this time and prefers to downplay the conflict and postpone settlement. For the Philippines, the dispute is of vital importance. It has indicated that it also wants short-term results, especially on the issue of Mischief Reef.

Second, on the approach to dispute resolution, China prefers bilateral negotiations but dialogue with ASEAN can be tolerated. But for the Philippines, bilateral dialogue can help but ultimately multilateral solutions are needed. Moreover, appeals to the international community are also considered an important part of conflict management from the Philippine perspective.
Third, on negotiation style, China wants quiet diplomacy and secrecy in negotiations. On the other hand, the Philippines is open and transparent, playing out the conflict in both local and international media.

Fourth, on the role of external powers, the issue is of no concern of the United States and others, as far as China is concerned. On the part of the Philippines, the US should be committed to assist the Philippines and other regional states have reason to be concerned.

And the fifth difference in perception concerns what each side has submitted as their proposals and demands as confidence building measures (CBMs). CBMs refer to measures taken by adversaries to reduce mutual suspicions and develop a basic level of trust in order to pave the way for the resolution of conflicts. For China, CBMs with the Philippines should involve preventing arrest of fishermen, ceasing low flights over Mischief Reef, and allowing “normal” fishing operations and cooperation. For the Philippines, CBMs with China should mean preventing intrusions and illegal fishing, especially in EEZ, and recognizing the Philippine claim over Mischief Reef.

The above fundamental differences, if not properly addressed can easily lead to misunderstandings, an escalation of tensions, or even untoward incidents or accidents. Persistent dialogue on the issue has at least succeeded in making known to each side the perceptions and concerns of the other side. Even the appreciation of how far apart they are on certain issues, as in the case of China and the Philippines, is an important first step in moving closer and finding common ground.
From the Philippine perspective, dialogue with China, combined with actions actively asserting its opposition to China’s occupation of Mischief Reef in bilateral and multilateral fora, helps keep international attention on the issue. This somewhat reduces the danger of China even more boldly taking unilateral actions to promote its claims.

The process of resolving the territorial and maritime resource dispute between the two countries is bound to be protracted. The confidence-building process, on the other hand, can achieve incremental progress, and if it is properly focused, can help keep the final resolution of the dispute on the agenda. In the meantime, it forces each side to justify to the other its policies and actions, emphasizes the importance of compromise on a “win-win” situation, and helps bind both parties to acceptable norms and principles of behavior.

* This article is excerpted from a 1999 study of Prof. Aileen San Pablo-Baviera on Bilateral Confidence Building with China in Relation to the South China Sea Dispute: A Philippine Perspective supported by the International Security Research and Outreach Program of Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. Prof. Baviera is Associate Professor at the UP Asian Center, Research Fellow of the UP-CIDS Asia Pacific Studies Program, and Executive Director of the Philippine-China Development Resource Center.