"These show that both the Philippines and China are serious in finding common ground through dialogue and negotiation rather than through the use of force. Still, we would have wanted to read full details on what was actually agreed upon."
From time to time, tension prevails in the South China Sea as claimant-countries assert their ownership of disputed islands in the vital waterway.
The Philippines claims part of the Spratly Islands that’s also claimed by China and other neighboring countries, such as Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei. Calling this part of the West Philippine Sea, Manila asserts that the disputed area is part and parcel of its Exclusive Economic Zone encompassing 200 miles around the archipelago based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
China, on the other hand, claims almost the entire South China Sea through what it calls the “nine-dash line,” asserting that its ownership goes back to thousands of years in history.
So how should the territorial dispute that threatens peace and stability in the region be resolved?
In the case of the Philippines and China, the two sides have agreed to commit themselves to finding a peaceful solution to conflicting claims.
They do this through a Bilateral Consultation Mechanism (BCM) that has already convened four times since 2017.
The Fourth Meeting of the BCM was held on April 2-3, 2019 in Manila. The Philippine delegation was led by Foreign Affairs Assistant Secretary Meynardo Montealegre of the Office of Asian and Pacific Affairs with the Chinese delegation led by Vice Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou. Like in the Third Meeting of the BCM in October 2018, the Fourth BCM consisted of equivalent officials from the respective foreign ministries and relevant agencies.
Here are the highlights of the latest round of meetings:
One, proceeding from an earlier joint statement on 21 November 2018 wherein the two sides agreed to exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities in the South China Sea that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability, the participants affirmed the importance of the BCM as a venue for enhanced and regular dialogue.
Two, they emphasized the significance of the BCM as a platform for pursuing measures to increase mutual trust and confidence. Both sides acknowledged that the BCM, as a forum for raising differences with a view to address them, preventing and properly managing incidents at sea, and enhancing maritime dialogue and cooperation, can play a significant role in the stable and steady development of bilateral relations.
Third, in a frank yet cordial and constructive manner, both sides raised specific issues and recent developments and actions in the South China Sea which have raised concerns to either side, and proposed ways to address them in a cooperative manner. They reaffirmed their commitment to cooperate and to continue to find ways forward to strengthen mutual trust and confidence.
Fourth, both sides reiterated that while the contentious issues in the South China Sea should not be ignored, these are not the sum total of the Philippines-China relations and should not exclude mutually beneficial cooperation in other fields. They reaffirmed the importance of maintaining and promoting regional peace and stability, freedom of navigation in and over-flight above the South China Sea.
Five, the two countries reiterated their commitment to address disputes by peaceful means, without resorting to the threat or use of force, through friendly consultations and negotiations by sovereign states directly concerned, in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law, including the Charter of the United Nations and the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
Six, they had a productive exchange of views on ways to enhance maritime cooperation in various areas, such as recent developments in the South China Sea carrying political and security implications, maritime search and rescue, maritime safety, marine environmental protection/marine scientific research, and fisheries in relevant Working Group meetings under the framework of the BCM. Without prejudice to their respective positions on sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction, both sides also exchanged views on oil and gas development.
Seven, the two countries also recognized the importance of other complementary multilateral platforms, including ASEAN-China Dialogue Relations, ASEAN Regional Forum, and East Asia Summit, in promoting peace and stability in the region.
Finally, both sides reiterated their commitment to full and effective implementation of the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea and agreed to maintain the positive momentum of the negotiations towards the early conclusion of a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, based on consensus.
While all these show that both the Philippines and China are serious in finding common ground through dialogue and negotiation rather than through the use of force, we would have wanted to read full details on what was actually agreed upon. For instance, we’re sure that Filipino fishermen would like to know where they can safely catch fish in the disputed areas. Nevertheless, we believe that if peace and stability are to prevail in our western flank, then the bilateral consultation mechanism should be given full rein in arriving at doable solutions to seemingly insurmountable challenges, even if it takes time.