“Innocent-sounding” phrases continue to assume crucial significance over the Philippine Sea row, China casting most of the hook, line and sinker, but the baits seem not swallowed by millions of Filipinos.
For the past and present, ranking China leaders message Philippine officials on officially couched words as “friendly dialogue,” “enhancing mutual trust, “properly enhancing differences, or “friendly consultation,” and responded positively by the Philippine government.
These are more than empty expressions, articulated by no less than giants of the communist bloc President Xi Jinping, Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Sun Weidong and Beijing’s ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian. The choice of phraseology brings profound repercussions whether these entice Filipinos to believe the truthfulness of China’s actions.
At the recently held Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in Bangkok, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. had a bilateral talk, first time both leaders met and Marcos describing it later as “a pleasant exchange,” and “kind of getting-to-know you,” between him and the Chinese leader. These oft-used pleasantries expressed by other citizens elsewhere globally and verbalized by Marcos warmed Filipino sentiment.
Both leaders agreed to clinch further future bilateral talks, and Xi being reported by the China Embassy in the Philippines as expressing, “On the South China Sea, the two sides must stick to friendly consultation and handle differences and disputes properly.”
China Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Sun Weidong, head of Chinese diplomats that sat with Philippine officials was reported as saying, “In the past years, through friendly dialogue and consultations, our two countries have generally managed and effectively dealt with our differences on maritime issues and we also advanced our practical cooperation and mutual trust.”
Bolstering Weidong, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin last April explained how the visit of China’s Foreign Minister Qin Gang to the Philippines as “enhancing mutual trust” and “properly enhancing differences.
Recall that Wang Yi, first foreign minister to visit Marcos last year and predecessor of Gang, even hailed the election of Marcos “as turning a new page” that would create “a new golden age of bilateral relations between the two countries.
But Filipinos political prescription of remaining optimistic with such crafted words continues a downward spin due primarily to hostile actions of the Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) of relentlessly following provocative and unsafe conducts by harassing both Filipino fisher folks and the Philippine Coast Guard and swarming the Philippine Sea with vessels, including a warship. As a result, 8 out of 10 Filipinos doubt China, creating an environment of belief the Chinese are merely crafting words that can blindside Philippine officials.
Whenever picking up papers from street newsstands, reading Chinese friendly overture statements, knowing fully well Chinese belligerent moves, Filipinos rankle, becoming dismissive. For now, the Philippine Sea is a province of public discussion elsewhere among the majority in the Philippines.
It happens, they, too, cashed in their local phraseology versions in rebut to the Chinese phrases, often expressed during group, street, tea or coffee table conversations, in style samples like, “Whose legs are the Chinese pulling, anyway.” Many, directly sarcastic, harrumph, “Who are China (officials) fooling. Still others blurt, “Tell those to the (Philippine) marines.”
Many, unable to find refinement of language, concocts this elaborateness of humor being bandied about of Chinese officials being likened to the classic smiling salesman trying to peddle something – like snake oil – that could not possibly work, given their bullying on the Philippine Sea.
On the other hand, thousands of Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) inquiring about China’s action often are offered plates of pessimism by relatives.
Resistance to Chinese phrasing ups the mercury of their temperature whenever forced, recalling the latest and serious incident of laser pointing by CCG on personnel of a Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) ship, some of the crew having suffered temporary blindness and being hospitalized.
They speak, too, about how their government has filed 77 diplomatic protests, including the military grade laser incident.
In the laser-pointing, China’s ambassador to the Philippines offered a lame reason their coast guard merely used an ordinary laser pointer, but the occurrence tweaked the eyebrows of millions of Filipinos, such sentiment encapsulated by Philippine defense secretary Carlito Galvez Jr., as saying “the act was offensive and unsafe.” Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed.
Majority feel Chinese rhetoric bereft of sincerity, merely taking Filipinos for a ride. Their suspicion seems to hold water. During the last day of the second week of April, China suddenly twanged a different tune by accusing the Philippines of raising regional tension.
Their change in semantics arose when Marcos announced approval of four military camps as rotating bases of American forces. No major howl of protest emanated from the Filipinos, even from political opposition leaders. It was only China which registered its strong objection. One of the camps to be used by US forces faces the sea across Taiwan.
Beijing’s ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian was quoted by the papers and TV by saying, “The Philippines is advised to unequivocally oppose Taiwan’s independence rather than stoking the fire by offering the US access to military bases near the Taiwan Strait, if you care genuinely about the 150,00 Overseas Filipino Workers,” the ambassador apparently referring to OFWs employed presently in Taiwan.
Marcos got surprised by the comments: “We were a little bit surprised. But I will be talking to the ambassador soon and I am sure he will be very anxious to give his own interpretation of what he was trying to say.” Marcos even went the length of defending Xilian: “English is not his first language, I just put it down to the difference of language.”
Assertion by Xilian raised the hackles of Migrante International, a world-wide coalition of OFW groups, saying, “Beijing makes it appear that China is holding OFWs in Taiwan hostage,” adding, “The biggest contribution that you can give to the opposition to US military bases, troops and exercises in the Philippines is the cessation of your aggressive assertion of your claims over territories that are also being claimed by the Philippines. With its actions, China presented itself as a convenient bogeyman that requires US presence and intervention in the region – a notion that is incorrect, even as it is influential.”
Some dissatisfied Philippine lawmakers and groups, however, called for Xilian’s expulsion following what he said.
Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) also gave its word in the ear about the remark, saying “Brazen threats that are unacceptable to the civilized world.”
Philippine political analyst, Dr. Froilan Calilung, offers a proposition of China misinterpreting the Philippine decision to grant the United States access under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). Beijing’s concerns that the Philippines and the US might aggravate tensions in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait because of the new EDCA location are highly unlikely. Last April, locations of bases that Washington can utilize have been released.
“It is very important to understand EDCA. Basically, it is an exercise not just for internal and external security. It also aims to enhance what we call HADR or Human Assistance and Disaster Response, as well as addressing climate change especially in the face of natural calamities,” Calilung states.
“At the same time, it aims to enhance what we call the interoperability between our forces, skills transfer, and technological transfer between the US and the AFP (Armed Forces in the Philippines), especially now that we have talks regarding cybersecurity and counter-terrorism.”
“EDCA has been here since 2014 and these annual exercises have been going on for a long time even before talks regarding the West Philippine Sea and Taiwan Strait have escalated. EDCA has been crafted well within the bounds of Philippine law.”
Majority of Filipinos, deemed having a high proficiency in English and, standing second spot in Asia, espouse an opinion of them not needing to be scholars in political science to understand Chinese actions on the Philippine Sea are clear violations of Philippine sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction as defined by international law. They pooh-pooh the “nine- dash line” being peddled by China, considering it as lacking legal basis.
Filipinos have learned well enough, listening to interviews of Antonio T. Carpio, former Senior Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the Philippines, how China cannot justify its nine-dash line claim under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), reason why China refuses to participate in arbitral proceedings.
The big communist country has also ignored a 2016 international tribunal ruling that its claims have no basis.
A national survey conducted by Pulse Asia, Survey third quarter of 2022 reveals majority trust the United States most, and; China, the least; feel a “a fair amount of trust” to the United States, and “not too much trust” or “no trust at all” for China. They said, “the Philippines should extend a great deal of trust” to the United States.
China seems to be failing to stem the tide of distrust. Another political analyst, Dindo Manhit, head of the Philippine think tank Stratbase ADR Institute, interpolates the national sentiment as a public view helping guide the Philippine government in promoting a foreign policy that best represents the Filipino interest. In short, public sentiment supplies the imprimatur.
It may do well for China to mind Filipino sentiments, easily entering freely on discussion of a topic on which the feeling of a larger part of a community is strongly pre-engaged, a belief that rides high and not having dipped.
Public awareness plays a crucial role in garnering support for the Philippine government’s stance in maintaining its nautical sovereignty in midst of Chinese incursions, fully knowing it cannot even match China. Last Thursday, newly appointed defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro Jr. went on to explain, “As a stronger country, it (China) has the bigger obligation to be magnanimous and show trust, and to earn the trust of the Filipino people.”