There is a fast train, and a slow train to claiming sovereignty over the disputed areas in the West Philippine Sea, but whichever it takes, the Philippines will not give up its claim, Manila's ambassador to Beijing said Tuesday.
The Philippines is putting trade and commerce with China on the fast track, and separating territorial disputes from other aspects of its dealings with the Asian superpower to improve relations between the two countries and avoid "confrontation and conflict, and possible war," said Chito Sta. Romana, the Philippines' ambassador to China.
If the Philippines forces China to comply with the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA), or rallies the United States in trying to pressure China to accept the tribunal’s ruling, it can end badly, Sta. Romana said.
"This is the path to confrontation and conflict, and possible war…this has now been proven to be unreliable because...will the US back us up, to what extent?" he said.
This is why the Philippines, the ambassador said, is now trying to reach agreements with China on issues "where there are no debates".
"We should still pursue arbitral tribunal, but we delink it from other spheres of relations…[we will seek] to improve traditional relations and try to convince the Chinese it is to their advantage in the long run to be a peaceful power, otherwise the whole region will go against them," Sta. Romana said.
However, this does not mean that the Philippines will push the U.S. away, either.
"Right now we are trying to find that mix, where we have independence from the US, but still maintaining historical ties with the US, [and] at the same time developing ties with China," he said.
The bilateral dispute, he said, was "complicated" by a strategic rivalry between the U.S. and China, which put the Philippines in between the two countries.
"When two elephants fight, it's the grass who suffers. We don't want to be the grass," he said.
This is why President Rodrigo Duterte’s marching order was to "compartmentalize" relations with China, with his own visit to the country setting up the groundwork to prioritize investments and infrastructure—business—instead of warfare.
The PCA in July issued a unanimous award to the Philippines with regards to China’s claim of historic rights over areas in the South China Sea.
"There was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources within the sea areas falling within the ‘nine-dash line,'" the tribunal said in its ruling.
The PCA also said China violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights in its exclusive economic zone by interfering with Philippine fishing and petroleum exploration, constructing artificial islands, and failing to prevent Chinese fishermen from fishing in the zone.
The tribunal also chided China over environmental damage in the South China sea, and for "aggravating" the dispute with the Philippines by proceeding with activities in the area.
CHANGE IN PERSPECTIVE
Sta. Romana admitted that the country's "change in perspective" when it comes to China can be confusing for some, because it happened only in the span of a few months.
"China is not viewed as a threat to national security, but a partner in economics. China used to view us as…a spearhead aimed at China, an unsinkable carrier of the US. Now the Philippines…is acting like a friendly neighbor," he said.
This surprised the Chinese, he said, particularly the Chinese media.
"It's like [President Rodrigo] Duterte fell from the heavens, like manna from heaven. They were expecting that after the tribunal, the whole region would be against them, they would have to keep Scarborough under their control," he said.
The changes in the Philippines made China more willing to provide assistance to the country, he said, and allowed tension to drop in the West Philippine Sea.
He denied, though, that the Philippines is being "bought" by China into agreeing with it through foreign aid.
While economic gains will be the driving force of the two countries' relationship, he said, the Philippines is bent on maintaining an independent foreign policy.
"We were excessively dependent on America…it's not only Chinese [relations], but Southeast Asian nations [that Duterte is building up]. We are trying to diversify…[and center relations around Asia] since we are chair of ASEAN conference," he said.
Sta. Romana admitted there are "daunting" challenges which remain. Despite these, however, the country has achieved much in terms of peace.
"[We have shown] that it is possible to give peace a chance, [and that] it is possible to give bilateral talks a chance. We'll see how far we can go in this regard," he said.
In May, Duterte said China must follow the ruling of the United Nations-backed tribunal. He also earlier jested that he would ride a jet ski and plant a Philippine flag on a Chinese-held reef in the Spratly Islands.
However, the administration later softened its stance on the territorial row, with Duterte saying during the weekend that the Philippines will set aside the tribunal’s ruling.
"We welcome and appreciate President Duterte's relevant remarks. We believe that President Duterte's policy on dealing with the arbitral ruling over the South China Sea issue coincides with the common interests of the two countries and their people, and shows the constantly deepening mutual trust and friendship," said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying on Monday.