PH envoy explains approach to sensitive issues with China

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, April 3) — As Manila and Beijing are set to sit down for bilateral talks next month, Philippine ambassador to China Chito Sta. Romana says the South China Sea issue will be discussed — but there is a way, and timing, to do this.

Speaking to CNN Philippines on Monday, Sta. Romana said it would be best to focus first on things the Philippines could agree on with the Asian superpower.

"What he have won legally, we won't give up. But to separate contentious from non-contentious, to separate is not to give up the tribunal award. It is how to use it," Sta. Romana pointed out.

The former veteran Beijing-based journalist said anybody who had dealt with China knew that once you opened up the talks with the tribunal award, the conversation would stop.

So for the negotiations to move on, the wiser tack would be to develop warm relations at the onset.

"Develop areas of cooperation, areas of mutual benefit... so as to develop mutual trust mutual confidence," he said. "So that you come to the time that you can discuss this contentious areas."

Related: Duterte: Despite sea row, PH 'at best level' of ties with China

President Rodrigo Duterte himself did not discuss the sea row when he went to Beijing and talked to President Xi Jinping. Duterte said there would be another time for that, but for the time being, he'd rather talk about business and trade.

Related: Duterte vows to act if China 'siphons minerals' from South China Sea

Trust first, but...

Sta. Romana also explained that Manila just had to take Beijing's word that their survey ship just passed by Benham Rise.

"In diplomacy there is an adage, 'Trust and verify.' You take them at their word, but you have to verify," he said.

But this is where the problem lies.

"We don't have the capacity (to verify)," Sta. Romana said. "From a Chinese open source periodical, on the same boat, they said the boat was engaged in maritime scientific research from November 26 to around mid-January in the western Pacific. They don't say where."

He said the Chinese said they collected water samples and sediment samples, but things were "murky" whether it was anywhere near the undersea plateau.

"This is where the importance of patrol or surveillance. Through satellite or via network through allies. To see if it really happens, that's how you verify."

But one thing was very clear. The Chinese are not interested in Benham as a maritime claim, only for scientific research purposes, Sta. Romana said.