China urges Philippines to exercise caution, rationality in South China Sea

BEIJING: Form the prospect of entering a “golden era” to “standing at a crossroads,” China-Philippines relations have been on a roller coaster in 2023 as the Philippines  continues to challenge China’s sovereignty by sending ships to intrude into the adjacent waters of China’s Ren’ai Jiao (also known as Ren’ai Reef) in an attempt to deliver construction materials to repair and reinforce the illegally “grounded” military vessel.

Following a recent phone conversation between Chinese and Philippine senior officials aimed at easing tensions, analysts said on Thursday that the Philippines’ act of provocations by bringing external forces into the Asia-Pacific is an extremely dangerous move for Manila and regional stability, and the Philippines should not misjudge China’s determination to safeguard its sovereignty in the South China Sea. At the same time, it should not doubt China’s sincerity in resolving the issue through dialogue.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Wednesday urged the Philippine side to make the proper management of the current maritime situation a top priority during a phone conversation with Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs Enrique A. Manalo at the latter’s request.

The severe difficulties facing China-Philippines relations right now are rooted in the fact that the Philippine side has changed its policy stance, reneged on the promises it has made, constantly provoked troubles at sea, and undermined China’s legitimate and lawful rights, said Wang, also a member of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China Central Committee.

China is always committed to resolving differences through dialogue and consultation to jointly maintain maritime stability, Wang said.

He warned that if the Philippine side misjudges the situation, goes its own way, or even colludes with ill-intentioned external forces to continue stirring up trouble, China will defend its rights in accordance with law and respond resolutely.

Manalo, for his part, talked about the views of the Philippine side on the issue of Ren’ai Jiao, expressing the hope that differences can be managed in a way acceptable to both sides, so as to cool down tensions and prevent conflicts.

Manalo said the Philippine side is willing to strengthen dialogue with China in good faith, make good use of the bilateral communication mechanism on maritime issues, and jointly seek a solution to the issue.

The two sides agreed to hold a meeting of the Bilateral Consultation Mechanism on the South China Sea as soon as possible and actively create favorable conditions for it.

Wang Wenbin, a spokesperson of Chinese Foreign Ministry, said at a Thursday press briefing that China’s position on maritime disputes with its neighbors remains unchanged.

“When it comes to maritime disputes with our neighbors, China’s position is consistent and clear without any change. Our commitment to properly managing disputes through dialogue and consultation has not changed. Our willingness to work with the Philippines to implement the previously reached common understandings and agreements has not changed. Our policy of working with the Philippines and other ASEAN countries to safeguard peace and stability in the South China Sea has not changed,” Wang Wenbin said.

Last but not least, our resolve to safeguard our sovereignty and legitimate rights and interests has not changed and will not change, said the spokesperson.

Although the two ministers agreed to strengthen dialogue and cool tensions on Wednesday, on the same day, Philippine Defense Secretary Carlos Teodoro said “only China believes in what they are saying,” as “no country in the world” unequivocally supports China’s claim to the whole of the South China Sea, according to media reports.

Noting that the bilateral relationship now stands at a crossroads, with its future yet to be decided, Wang Yi told his counterpart that the Philippine side must act with caution.

Instead of continuing in the wrong direction, the Philippine side should return to the right path as soon as possible, Wang Yi said.

Wang Yi’s words also came against the backdrop of Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. calling for a “paradigm shift” in dealing with disputes.

Xu Liping, director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told the media it’s possible for China-Philippines relations to ease in the future, but the key is whether the two sides can return to the traditional bilateral dialogue and consultation mechanism, instead of turning bilateral issues into multilateral ones and complicating the situation.

Marcos’s comment, according to Xu, is a tentative move against China, and an attempt to win sympathy from other countries. But regional countries may not support the Philippines, as Manila’s provocative approach will only harm regional stability, Xu said.

Gu Xiaosong, dean of the ASEAN Research Institute at the Hainan Tropical Ocean University, said there are two paths for Manila to choose from. One is jointly to manage differences with China, and take actions to maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea. The other path is to continue challenging China’s territorial sovereignty, which goes against the common interests of both countries and the region.

In fact, the common interests between China and the Philippines far outweigh the differences, and a good relationship with China is conducive to the Philippines’ own development, said Gu.

For the Philippines, developing its economy and addressing livelihood issues requires massive investment and infrastructure projects. China has a huge market demand for agricultural products and processed goods, which can allow the Philippines to increase its exports, Gu noted.

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