MANILA – A professor specializing on Chinese Studies on Thursday said the Philippines must seize the opportunity given by China to return to the negotiating table following the Southeast Asian nation's filing of its pleadings before the United Nations over the West Philippine Sea dispute.
Marwyn Samuels, professor emeritus at New York's Syracuse University, said China has not yet closed its doors to the possibility that the Philippines will resume bilateral talks despite the latter's move to file its "memorial" to a United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea-backed (UNCLOS) arbitral tribunal
The Philippines angered China after it filed the historic pleadings challenging the Asian giant's claim to almost the entire West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
"In Chinese tradition, going to court is always a matter of embarrassment and shame. And so the Chinese view of this simply is that the Philippines shamed them," Samuels told ANC's Headstart on Thursday.
"But there was also, in a statement, a caveat - a desire of China to seek a bilateral discussion of this and take it out of the hands of a third party. So the opportunity still exists."
Samuels added that it is in the interest of the Philippines to go back to talks with China, noting that it will take too long for the arbitration panel to come up with a decision on the dispute, assuming that the latter decides it has jurisdiction over the matter.
"In my opinion, it will not succeed in any case. Not because of the legalistic aspects of this. It will not succeed because it will take a long time before UNCLOS to make that kind of decision. That's very technical. It is almost outside the authority of UNCLOS itself, and China's not likely to pay too much attention these legal niceties," he said.
Samuels said there will be consequences arising from the Philippines' move to bring the matter to the UN panel, but these could be averted if it returns to bilateral diplomacy.
"To be very blunt, this requires talking between the two sides. It doesn't have to be in public… Having been much involved in this kind of thing in the past with the US and China, I can say quite honestly, the only successful ones really begin when they are quiet, when they are not in public," he said.
Great potential for PH-China economic ties
Samuels believe that despite the strained ties between the two Asian neighbors brought by the territorial row and its close ties with the United States, the Philippines still has an opportunity to develop a good relationship with China.
"I think the Philippines has, to put it in a more positive sense, in looking at Asia, has choices to make… China is the number two economy in the world and it is continuing to grow. It may slow down but it is not gonna stop growing," he said.
"[Filipinos] may be very Western in many ways, but you are still part of the region and you do have 25 percent of the population who are of Chinese origin. That is an advantage that you should use in trying to improve understanding between Chinese and Filipinos."
Asian Development Bank economist Zheng Liping also noted that the economic structures of China and the Philippines complement each other.
"The economic structures of both countries are quite different. There is a great potential of future economic cooperation. China is very good in manufacturing, machinery, equipment. This is something the Philippines really needs," he said.
"We should embrace the participation of China in ASEAN's economy. Because compared with many ASEAN countries like Singapore, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam, the Philippines still has a big room to improve, great potential to cultivate."
Should smaller nations fear growing China?
Apart from the historical and economic dimensions of the long-standing dispute in the West Philippine Sea, Samuels explained China's aggressiveness in pushing its claims is also due to concerns that the United States is trying to contain it and deter its rise as a global power.
"China went oceanic in the late 1990s. It became a blue-water Navy. The purposes of this is to protect its interest in terms of keeping the seas open and not to be contained by the US or anybody else. They are convinced to some extent, at least, that the US seeks to control China in indirect and direct ways," he said.
"There is nothing very strange about that in my opinion. In their opinion, it is quite natural for them to do this and nobody needs to be afraid of it. They are not interested in conquering the Philippines or Southeast Asia."
Although China has been seen to be ramping up its military spending, its allocation for defense is still dwarfed by Pentagon's outlay.
"China has a reason to doubt or be convinced at least of American intentions in Asia and elsewhere. It has legitimate concerns about this. It is not responding in a capacity to do war with America. It doesn't have that means," he said.
Samuels also dismissed talks about the "decline of American power," saying "this is nonsense because the US is and will be for the foreseeable future, the biggest power in the world if it chooses to use it and how it chooses to use it."
He does not also believe the allegation that China is funding rebel groups in some parts of the world in order to push its interests, pointing out that the top priority of the Asian giant is to achieve domestic stability.
"It is important to understand that China's primary goal is its own stability. This is the highest priority in Chinese minds - political, economic and social. So it's addressing its own domestic issues much more than its international questions of politics, geopolitics, military and other things," he said.