Romulo and Siazon on Spratlys Issue and Sino-Philippine Relations

In this week’s edition and on the succeeding issues of PH.CN, I’d be running in full the text of the presentations delivered by guest speakers of the recently concluded International Forum on the West Philippine Sea which I have attended in Manila. Below in respective order are the presentations delivered by Former DFA Secretary Roberto Romulo and Former DFA Secretary Domingo Siazon Jr.


Just recently, a commentary published in the Global Times – a newspaper under the  Communist Party’s People’s Daily – said the South China Sea was the “ideal battlefield”  for China to wage small-scale wars with rival claimants to territory in the area. The article, titled “The Time to Teach Those Around the South China Sea A Lesson”, was written by Long Tao, a strategic analyst with the China Energy Fund Committee, a non-government think tank. “We shouldn’t waste the opportunity to launch some tiny scale battles that could deter provocateurs from going further, he said. He added that  punishing the  “troublemakers”  – the  Philippines and Vietnam – should teach other Southeast Asian countries to  behave. I hasten to add that no  Chinese  officials  commented on this article so it cannot be taken as an official position. But that is not  my point as you will soon see.

Running side by side with that commentary was an article by Sun Peisong, a director of the government-backed Lianyungang Development Research Institute in Jiangsu  province. Sung criticized Long’s view, saying any critical moves made by China in the South China Sea disputes would be  used as an excuse  by the US to  take action  to contain China’s rising global influence.

Both articles were soon circulated by internet users. Almost 2,000 messages – and counting – supporting Long’s view were reported. On the other hand, more than 1,000 internet users branded Sun a “traitor” in a more unrestrained manner.

This kind of debate and the intense emotion it generates is not unique to China. In Vietnam, monks have self-immolated and demonstrators have waved the PROC’s flag painted over with a skull and cross-bone while shouting “Down with China”.

Here in my own country, some national and local politicians have called China a bully and urged the government to fight back and demonstrate its sovereignty. They have called for the beefing up the government’s presence in the territory and the granting oil exploration concessions in what is now called the West Philippine Sea.

Strategic and economic interests propel each claimant’s position. That we all know.  But there are other dynamics at play out there as well that influence actions and reactions by claimants which may not be as easy to rationalize and channel into peaceful discourse. Like the proverbial “genie in the bottle”, nationalism is a factor that once let out, may not be so easy to put back in.

It is what is driving the heated rhetoric and the general public’s interest in some far off specks of land in a vast sea which they will  probably  never set their eyes on in their lifetime.  And that is what may tilt governments – towards actions that are  expedient domestically but which may not be  rational and acceptable as a responsible member of the world community.

So despite declarations of peaceful resolution, we cannot afford to keep the eye off the ball because of these dynamics.  I myself can associate with Mr. Sun. One of my businessman friends to whom I broached the idea of a Track II dialogue, dismissed the idea as fruitless and branded me a Neville Chamberlain for advocating what he calls a policy of appeasement.

But  I am happy to say that I am not alone and woe to those who question their patriotism. There are as many voices of reason and circumspection out there as there are of jingoism and violence – within the general public and within officialdom. As you can see from our sponsors and the attendance here today, the business community is keenly aware of the significance of stability in the South China Sea.  They realize its relevance not just to the economies in the region but those  beyond as well. Conflict in the area will not benefit anyone but the  harm will be widespread.  World commerce will be severely impaired surely.  They appreciate the value of dialogue and  welcome  the declaration of all claimants for peaceful resolution.

So it is important that there be dialogues – official and non-official – to better inform the public to give  governments breathing space from  pressure from their domestic constituents,  to avoid misunderstanding and miscalculations and provide avenues to cooperation and peaceful resolution.

Official dialogues however need time to mature into effective mechanisms for resolving disputes. Non-official dialogues such as we are having help surface underlying reasons for each country’s position and generate ideas for moving forward.  Over time they may evolve into feasible options for policy makers to consider in formal talks. Governments are in a happy position to adopt recommendations or views they like, while rejecting others.

An appreciation of each party’s strategic and economic interests is a key element to any resolution. These interests may not all be in congruence with each other but where they do, provides pathways for win-win solutions. Our hope as organizers of this Forum is for such discussions to take place to generate understanding and for ideas for moving forward to germinate. I would thus encourage speakers and participants to be frank but constructive at the same time.


It is said that when the seal of the United Nations was being determined, Carlos P. Romulo asked: “Where is the Philippines?” Senator Warren Austin, head of the Selection Committee, explained, “it is  too small to include. If we put the Philippines, it would be no more than a dot,” “I want that dot,” insisted Romulo.

Today a tiny dot between the Pacific Ocean and the South China Sea can be found on the UN seal. The general must now be smiling watching the CPR’s Foundation’s forum on the disputes related to the many mini dots and non-dots of the South China Sea.

In recent times, there has been a proliferation of meetings on the SCS disputes. The reason for this is clear. Countries in the region, both claimants and non-claimants are seriously concerned that the occasional incidents in the SCS which have increased in frequency could lead to military conflict in the region. They all yearn for an early settlement of the disputes.

It is also a sign that China will need to manage better its rise as an economic and military power in the world. China might wish to consider using more soft power and smart power.

Today we have the good fortune of having with us many renowned experts on the Law of the Sea and on regional cooperation in maritime areas. We hope to learn much from them. I would like to take this opportunity to pay special tribute to Ambassador Hasjim Djalal of Indonesia for his life time work on the Law of the Sea and for his efforts in convening the Workshop Process on Managing Potential Conflicts in the South China Sea since 1989.

Many important ideas and proposals have emerged from these Workshops. It would be useful for the claimant countries to study these for possible implementation in the SCS region.I am neither a lawyer nor an expert on the Law of the Sea (LOS), but I understand from the legal experts that with the entry into force of the United Nations Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in 1994 and with the submissions to the United Nations by the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Brunei in 2009, the SCS disputes are now better understood.

I am also informed that all the Claimants are Parties to UNCLOS. They therefore have to comply with the provisions on the Law of the Sea without exception and this development would facilitate the negotiation process.

I am advised of the evolving consensus among the experts that UNCLOS has clarified the following:

1. Territorial claims can be made only to land features and any territorial waters that they may generate, under the principle of land begets water rather than the other way around;

2. Distinction between islands, which can generate exclusive economic zones (EEZ) and continental shelf (CS), and rocks, which cannot;

3. Definition with some precision, of territorial sea, EEZ, and CS; and

4. Rights of other Parties to UNCLOS

There also seems to be a preponderance of views among the experts that a clarification by China of the 9 dash line on Chinese maps would greatly help to facilitate the negotiations defining areas for joint development. I believe it was China which first proposed in the 1980s shelving the sovereignty question and starting with joint development. The settlement of sovereignty and jurisdictional questions will take some time, perhaps too much time for most if not all the claimants.

In May 1995, I succeeded Roberto Romulo as Secretary of Foreign Affairs of President Fidel Valdez Ramos. A major challenge I had was the management of relations with China which occupied Mischief Reef early in 1995.

The occupation of Mischief Reef and its subsequent fortification has been like a fishbone in the Filipino’s throat. But at the same time, China has been a major economic partner not only in the bilateral sense but also in the context of ASEAN, the ASEAN Community and the establishment of an East Asian Community in the future.

Geographically, China is the largest neighbor of the Philippines. Geography is immutable and relations with China have to be managed very well. Political relations between China and the Philippines during 1995-2001 went up and down like a roller coaster because of the SCS dispute. Despite the successful exchanges of many successful State Visits, relations with China were always sensitive at the political level. Economic ties however, continued tostrengthen.

In 1999 during the term of President Joseph Ejercito Estrada, relations with China worsened as the number of Chinese fishing vessels intruding into Philippine areas increased significantly. Moreover, there were instances when Chinese fishing vessels would aim their weapons at the Philippine Coast Guard. There were also situations where the Philippine Coast Guard fired warning shots at the Chinese vessels.

The worst incidents happened in May 1999 with the accidental sinking in the Scarborough area of two Chinese fishing vessels by a Philippine Coast Guard ship.  It was a time when China was bristling with anti-US demonstrations in several places because the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade was accidentally bombed on 7 May 1995 by US planes resulting in casualties among Embassy staff and the destruction of the Embassy.

Fortunately, at that time, China accepted Philippines’ explanations and apologies.  China also demanded for compensation.  The DFA however refused compensation from the Philippines government as the Chinese vessels were fishing in Philippine area.  With the help of a Filipino-Chinese association, the amount of US$120,000 as compensation for the two ships was settled.

I have related the story about the Scarborough incident to underline that diplomacy has a very important role in managing disputes with other countries.  At the same time, I wish to signal that continuing disputes on the SCS could lead to potential conflict in the region.

There are more serious incidents between China and the USA in the SCS.  For example, the EP3 plane incident on April 1, 2001 and the USNS Impeccable incidents from 5 to 8 March 2009. Many worry about an accidental war between China and the USA.  They have good reasons for worrying.  But the greater risk may be a military conflict between China and Japan which have very serious disputes in the East China Sea.  Moreover, the accident control mechanisms between Japan and China probably need to be improved substantially after the September 2010 incident involving a Chinese fishing vessel intentionally colliding with a Japanese Coast Guard ship.

There is also an urgent need to establish emergency mechanisms between China and India for activities in the maritime areas. There are clear signs that the bigger economies in the Asian region need to improve the management of their relations with each other. It seems paradoxical that the Philippines, ASEAN and China have succeeded for the last ten years to establish closer economic relations and but remain unable to resolve their SCS disputes.

Today, China is the Philippines largest trading partner. China remains as ASEAN’s largest trading partner accounting for 11.3% of ASEAN’s total trade. In 2010 ASEAN was China’s fourth largest trading partner. And in the first half of 2011, ASEAN moved up to become China’s third trading partner. ASEAN and China are also developing an East Asian Free Trade Zone that would include Australia, India, Japan, New Zealand and the ROK. China is also an active and important member of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF).

It is interesting to note that China’s largest trading partner is the USA and Japan’s largest trading partner is China. China is also the largest trading partners of Australia, India and the ROK. China is the core trade and the hub of the industrial production network in East Asia.China-Philippines relations and China-ASEAN relations are too important to be frozen because of disputes on the SCS. We should all try to manage the disputes and go full speed ahead with our economic and political cooperation.

Early this year, the Asian Development bank (ADB) published a report titled: ASIA 2050 Realizing the Asian Century. The ADB report estimated that by 2050, about US$148 trillion or 51 percent of the World’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) would be from Asia and that China would be the biggest economy with a GDP of some US$63 trillion followed by India and the USA with around US$40 trillion each. There are of course many caveats to this scenario like regional integration, good governance and continuing re-structuring but perhaps the most significant is the avoidance of a major conflict between the big economies.

The realization of the Asian Century should be the objective of every Asian. In his book on China, Henry Kissinger compared the rise of China to the unification of the German Nation in 1871. He asked the question: “Will History Repeat itself?” He noted the complexity of managing the relations between China and the USA but warned that failure to do so could lead to a repetition of what happened to the German nation whose unification was based on nationalism. Joseph Nye in his book the Future of Power wrote: “The danger I see is that the Chinese—thinking America is in decline – push too hard, and that the Americans – fearing the rise of China – overreact.”

I tend to be more optimistic as the Asians particularly the Chinese have studied history well. The pattern of ASEAN development was based mainly on the European experience but molded in the ASEAN way. I believe that China and the Major Powers must continue to follow a Chinese saying by Chen Yun, the late communist leader: “Crossing the river by feeling for the stones.” If they do, we shall all be able to cross the river safely and realize the Asian Century.


J. Sun E.

Sun, a Filipino based in China, writes PH.CN on ProPinoy, a weekly column on Philippines-China relations, politics, history, and current events. He studied Political Science, History, and Foreign Languages in Philippines and China. Follow him on Twitter @phdotcn

  • J_ag

    “It’s Taiwan Stupid”

    It is most definitely not the Spratly’s that worry the world when it comes to China. It is the worlds most dangerous strait (Taiwan Strait) wherein both sides have thousands of missiles pointed at each other. The Philippines (the dot) is reveling in the attention it hopes to get from their favorite Uncle. 

    The Chinese prefer bilateral dealings and not multilateral dealings wherein the West would like to have a say. That is a big No NO. The Chinese also know that the Philippines does not have the means or confidence to deal independently with them. 

    Just recently Obama turned down the request for new jets for Taiwan and instead just send them upgrades for what they have. A clear tacit admission of the power of China today. Don’t pinch the tigers nose. 

    China has also developed land to sea missiles to even up the advantages that the U.S.A. have in their 8 carrier battle groups. The floating islands that are a strategic part of Americas forward projections of power. They have also leapfrogged into space guided missile systems.. 

    Plus the Chinese are building pipelines across Burma to the Indian Ocean to be able to transport oil from the M.E. Similarly they are helping to build the port at Gwadar in Pakistan to carry oil/gas from the M.E. to China under the protection of the U.S. military.

    Add to that the realization that China’s days as the worlds manufacturing  powerhouse are numbered. The State has to loosen controls on the economy for it to have sustained growth that is inclusive as social pressures are rising. China could implode from within which it is trying very hard to avoid. There is a huge gap in income disparities that will have to be addressed. Moving at high rates while trying to restructure their economy will be impossible.  There will be a slowdown from the high rates to more down to earth levels.  

    China by tying up with Congressional lobbyists in the U.S. are slowly learning how to play the smart power card. 

    Anyone who thinks the Spratlys will morph into a serious issue is delusional. Most of oil and gas reserves are in Central Asia and the M.E. The worlds policeman greatly helps in keeping oil prices from becoming volatile. That would also greatly affect their own economy. Americans would revolt if gas prices approached  European levels. 

    Sleep easy guys… Our neck of the woods is going to remain peaceful. Except of course for those pesky guys in Mindanao. 


    • Anonymous

      Side-topic question ( triggered by your “…pesky guys in Mindanao” comment).   Qaddafi’s death — does it change Mindanao picture?   Where are those “pesky guys”  getting their money anyway?

      I can’t believe the MILF with a much larger body-count can be 100% self-funding and there is enough to fund an army from kidnappings and extortion….   surely the MILF receives significant money from somewhere else.

      • J_ag

        The sources of their funding comes from the national government itself, smuggling and am sure from foreign sources in their M.E. Fuel smuggling is big business since both Indonesia and Malaysia subsidizes their oil business. Mindanao is the favorite entry point. 

        Please note that where ever the state is weak all forms of businesses can sprout to take advantage of the absence of state laws. 

        The American revolution was financed by the smuggling trade bypassing the monopolies imposed by the British East India Company. 

        Also please note that HK, Singapore served as pirate ports in the past.  

    • Manuelbuencamino

      The reason why Taiwan is no longer a member of the UN and why a great number of the world’s countries, especially south east asia, have a one-china policy is because there is a tacit recognition that the issue between China and Taiwan is internal. It does not concern the world, the world is not going to take sides.

      The reason why the Spratlys are hot is because half a dozen countries are claiming it.

      It’s the Spratly’s not Taiwan. 

      To repeat: the Spratly’s issue is multilateral, the Taiwan issue is internal. That’s a statement of fact, of reality, not a proposition!

      • Anonymous

        Makes sense to me…. the issue is so sensitive to the heart that for  Filipinos in Pilipinas  the Spratlys-issue  is much bigger than the Taiwan Straits issue.   (However, a really large segment of Pilipinas may be more anxious about when law-and-order if not peace descends on Libya, Egypt and other places of the Middle East, however, because of OFW jobs.)

        • J_ag

          Using probabilistic thinking.  The probability is higher that China will go to war vs the U.S. over Taiwan rather than the issue of the Spartly’s… 

          The nation which borders China, Vietnam is already moving to settle the Spratly’s issue with Vietnam bilaterally. The Vietnamese economy becoming more integrated with China as they share a land border. China is Vietnam’s largest foreign investor… The Chinese are building power plants, water systems and have been granted large mining rights in Vietnam… The probability is high that eventually they will sign joint projects to develop the Spratly’s.

          It was an old Maoist maxim that the Chinese us to good effect. “Unite the many, isolate the few and crush the enemy one by one.”  China is suing its surplus to good effect in many countries to build. Turning those almost worthless dollars into capital projects abroad keeps their factories humming and gives them access to resources they need. 

          In pre-capitalist economies whose dependence on the west is waning China is finding a ready partner. The old Romulo -U.S. cliques are living in the past Cold war paradigm when China is concerned. 

          The unipolar world these people were tied to is gone. Internally U.S. and Europe have serious political problems. They have to adjust their thinking. 

  • Joe America

    The tides and times of history reflect how the fears and Ego of mankind lead again and again to posturing, that leads to countries backing themselves into a corner, that leads to offense in the name of defense, that leads to enormous bloodletting. Then we go back to normal and do it all over again. We are fundamentally an irrational and insane species. No better than hyenas, laughing through the carnage.

  • Anonymous

    The “regular” citizens of Mainland China may not be thinking of “IT”
    when they support Long Tao’s bravado-talk to militarily null out
    Pilipinas with regards the Spratlys,  but I am sure the Politburo would
    be.  Sure, Pilipinas would be a cakewalk for China, but then, there is
    “IT” which will surely act.  “IT” is Japan — warmongering by China will hasten the re-arming of Japan, and the “containment” issue becomes much more real than anyone would imagine.

    China firing its missiles along with armed invasion of islands in disregard of UNCLOS and diplomacy will not only speed up the re-arming of Japan.  India will be foolish if India does not add to its nuclear- and other warmaking capabilities.

    As long as Pilipinas does not sell out the Spratlys for some drug mules or for eighty or two hundred kilometers of railroads (that China builds in Pilipinas) or for five hundred more shopping center sites (in China, for Pilipinas business interests),   there will be uncomfortable times but chances are that the islands that Pilipinas “owns” in the Spratlys will remain Pilipinas as far as the world is concerned.