SONA 2015: PH-China relations

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines) — Artificial islands the size of about 800 football fields have been built on the West Philippine Sea in less than two years.

These islands, which international observers call China’s “Great Wall of Sand”, expanded at a staggering pace after the Philippines filed an arbitration case before a United Nations court in January 2013.

“We introduced a new paradigm of dealing with the Chinese in terms of a legal battle. The only problem is, of course, the Chinese were furious,” Chito Sta. Romana, former ABC News Beijing Bureau Chief, told CNN Philippines.

The dispute goes back decades. But when Chinese patrol boats shooed away a Philippine survey ship in the Recto Bank near Palawan in March 2011, a chain reaction began. Tensions started to escalate.

“Malinaw ang pahiwatig natin ngayon sa buong mundo: Ang sa Pilipinas ay sa Pilipinas; kapag tumapak ka sa Recto Bank, para ka na ring tumapak sa Recto Avenue,” said President Benigno S. Aquino III in his 2011 State of the Nation Address.

In April 2012, the Philippine Navy faced off with the Chinese Coast Guard in Scarborough Shoal, or Bajo De Masinloc, near Zambales.

It went on for months until both sides agreed to pull out. But the Chinese came back and started driving away Filipino fishermen.

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“Hindi naman po yata tamang ipamigay na lang natin sa iba ang sadyang atin talaga,” Aquino said in his SONA last 2012. “Magtiwala po kayo, kumukonsulta tayo sa mga eksperto, upang makahanap ng solusyon na katanggap-tanggap sa lahat.”

Unable to match China’s military strength, the Philippine government went for international arbitration, citing the Philippines’ rights under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

The first round of oral arguments took place this month.

China has repeatedly voiced its objections and has threatened to take further action.

But there is no turning back now.

“I guess the government believes there really was no choice but to take this arbitration route on this issue,” said Jay Batongbacal, director of the UP Institute of Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea.

The government had tried one-on-one talks with Beijing, but they hit a dead end when Beijing demanded Manila to concede to China’s claimed sovereignty over the West Philippine Sea.

In April 2014, the government forged an enhanced defense cooperation agreement with the U.S. — but the Philippine Supreme Court is still studying whether or not the constitution allows it.

In June 2015, Aquino announced a possible Visiting Forces Agreement with Japan.

Meanwhile, he has been rallying the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to urge China to submit to a code of conduct in the disputed sea.

But nothing has stopped China’s incursion.

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 “China will become the region's pre-eminent power. So it's up to us to accept that it's going to happen, learn to live with it and identify what interests are there that we should protect, “ Batongbacal said.

Experts said that Manila and Beijing must learn to be friends even while they struggle for a resolution to the dispute, and that the current administration must use the time it has to charm the dragon.

“We're hosting APEC this year. It's a diplomatic opportunity to be able have dialogue at a high level... Xi Jinping, if everything goes well, should be coming. They will not come to an agreement, there's no question about it, but at least to some form of understanding each other's position,” Sta. Romana said.

If China’s vision is to establish itself as a superpower by 2049, then the Philippines must lose no time in forming a strategy that goes beyond six-year presidential terms.

Otherwise, the West Philippine Sea may end up engulfed by the “Great Wall of Sand.”

Read: Looking back: Past SONAs of President Aquino