Maritime Cooperation and Ocean Governance
I congratulate the organizers for putting this symposium together and I’m happy to learn about you. I learned that the National Institute for South China Sea Studies (NISCSS) specializes in research on issues of the South China Sea and participates in related academic exchanges. Associated with it is the Institute for China-America Studies (ICAS), the only Chinese think tank based in Washington D.C. One of the advisers of ICAS is the director the China Institute at the University of Alberta, Canada’s only established, multi-disciplinary think tank and research centre focusing solely on China studies.
I learned that the China-Southeast Asia Research Center on the South China Sea is a non-profit, international NGO dedicated to enhancing exchanges and cooperation among think-tanks of China and ASEAN countries, as well as its partners and supporting parties through its established networks, on issues of the South China Sea. Its network includes the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research headed by the erudite Filipino analyst Rommel Banlaoi.
Since NISCSS participates in academic exchanges, I hope that one day you can grace an academic forum in the Philippines under the auspices of the Association for Philippines-China Understanding which I co-founded in the 1970s when I was still in the academe.
The relationship between the Philippines and China is very important for our country. I can cite geography as one among several reasons. The Philippines and China are within each other’s backyard, so to speak, so good relations between neighbors are always a priority.
The Philippines is an archipelagic nation and our history and culture are intimately intertwined with the ocean. Around the world, Filipinos are working on ships that sustain international trade that in turn drives prosperity and international connectivity. This is one among several reasons why the Philippines therefore has a profound interest in oceans that are secure and support the prosperity of our country and the global community.
The organizers declared that they put this symposium together because today, the international community is faced with more global and regional maritime challenges than at any other time in human history.
The Center for Humanitarian Dialogue, an independent and neutral organization with the mission to prevent, mitigate and resolve conflict, opines that we are entering an era of political competition and the geopolitical future of Asia is uncertain. During these times it is important to ensure that there is a shared understanding of the norms of accepted behavior that prevents violent escalation.
Last September, at the 75th anniversary session of the United Nations, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte pronounced: “We must remain mindful of our obligations and commitment to the Charter of the United Nations and as amplified by the 1982 Manila Declaration on the Peaceful Settlement of International Disputes. The Philippines affirms that commitment in the South China Sea in accordance with UNCLOS and the 2016 Arbitral Award,” adding: “The Award is now part of international law.” The Award referred to concerns disputes between the Philippines and China regarding the legal basis of maritime rights and entitlements, the status of certain geographic features, and the lawfulness of certain actions of China in the South China Sea.
I mention these up to date main points of the Philippines’ position on the South China Sea, not in the capacity of an official spokesman for the Philippine government which I am not, but in the capacity of a long-time observer and student of China’s emerging role in the region.
My long-standing personal relations with China date back to the time when I co-founded the APCU in the 1970s, as I mentioned earlier. I first visited China in 1977 with APCU, and then in 1978, just before China’s reform and opening, with my family, including my father who had been President of the Philippines from 1961 to 1965. Between those two early trips to China, I visited Beijing and Guangzhou, Shanghai and Hangchow, Changsa and Shaosan, and Dachai. Having seen all those places before and after China’s reform and opening, I use one word to describe the changes in those places and in all China since 1978: “breathtaking.” The changes in China are considered today to be the greatest poverty alleviation in human history, lifting 800 million people out of poverty.
When I became President of the Philippines in 2001, I adopted the policy that our relations with China, and with all countries for that matter, should not be unidimensional – meaning only centered on our territorial disputes. It should be multi-faceted, with an economic face, a political face, a cultural face, and so forth. Then it was a matter of balancing those faces to arrive at the most mutually beneficial result possible.
When I made my first state visit to China in 2001, President Jiang Zemin and I agreed to transform the South China Sea from a region of conflict to a region of cooperation. At the ASEAN-China summit of 2002 the Philippines fought hard for and got a joint ASEAN-China Declaration on Conduct in the South China Sea, to settle disputes on that sea peacefully through consultation, to eschew force, and to build an atmosphere of confidence.
In 2004, in my second state visit to China, the Philippine National Oil Company Exploration Corporation and the China National Offshore Oil Corporation agreed on a Joint Seismic Marine Undertaking to conduct research in the South China Sea, later joined by the Vietnam Oil and Gas Group. My inspiration for proposing the joint undertaking was the Malaysia–Thailand Joint Development Area in the Gulf of Thailand which was created as an interim measure to exploit the natural resources in the seabed or continental shelf claimed by the two countries. The arrangement did not extinguish the legal right to claims by both countries over the area.
In 2005 when President President Hu Jintao visited the Philippines, he and I agreed that bilateral relations were entering a “golden age of partnership.” Major points of agreement showed that our multifaceted relation was in full bloom, including strong bilateral economic cooperation, cooperation in the defense and security fields, China’s continued support for our agricultural modernization, mining cooperation— and satisfaction with the trilateral agreement on joint seismic undertaking. My Energy Secretary at that time, Raphael Lotilla, is a speaker at this Symposium. My approach was similar to President Duterte’s approach of joint exploitation of energy resources in the South China Sea.
In 2014, during the term of Philippine President Benigno Aquino, China began reclamation on Fiery Cross Reef, which is also claimed by the Philippines and Vietnam. Fiery Cross Reef was occupied by China 30 years ago in 1987 when they were asked to build a UNESCO Marine observation station there. At that time it appears that only Vietnam opposed it, leading to armed conflict in March of that year. The 2014 reclamation expanded the reef to 274 hectares, including a runway capable of landing bomber aircraft. The Washington DC think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) founded by Georgetown University assesses that China’s facilities at Fiery Cross Reef are its most advanced base in the South China Sea. These kinds of observations reflect concerns of analysts whose point of view tend to be unidimensional, all the more calling for a broader multi-faceted perspective.
Last year, at the 70th anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army Navy, President Xi Jinping said:
“All countries should adhere to equal consultations, improve crisis communication mechanisms, strengthen regional security cooperation, and promote the proper settlement of maritime-related disputes.”
Indeed, in the management of disputes between a large country such as China and much smaller countries, I think the best approach is for China to think of itself as the senior uncle to many nephews in the family. Both uncle and nephews have responsibilities to work for the common good of the family.
Millions of Filipinos rely on fish from the South China Sea for their livelihood and nutrition. Protecting those Filipinos means protecting the sustainability of those fish stocks shared between our countries and they are in danger of collapse. Fish do not care about ocean boundaries. Between us, we can prevent overfishing, we just need a shared process that mobilizes our expertise and promotes cooperation.
I am informed that over the last three years scientists from the Philippine National Fisheries Research and Development Institute have been working with their counterparts around the region to produce a “Common Fisheries Resource Analysis”. This shared analysis will identify immediate steps needed to protect vulnerable fish species. With their colleagues their pioneering a cooperative approach to managing fisheries protects environmental sustainability and enhances prosperity.
As President Xi Jinping said, “The blue planet humans inhabit is not divided into islands by the oceans, but is connected by the oceans to form a community with a shared future, where people of all countries share weal and woe.”
I hope that this symposium will contribute to that community with a shared future.China’s hosting this symposium is a good example of a senior uncle exercising a responsibility to work for the common good of the family. Congratulations and thank you.