By Ellen Tordesillas
Chito Sta. Romana, considered a China expert having lived in China for more than 30 years and worked as Beijing Bureau chief of ABC News, said Philippines-China relations are now at their lowest ebb since the establishment of diplomatic ties in 1975.
Sta. Romana, together with Brig. Gen. (ret.) Jose Almonte, former National Security Adviser, were the speakers in last Wednesday's general membership meeting of the Makati Business Club at Hotel Intercon in Makati.
The unfortunate deterioration of relations with a global superpower and an Asian neighbor started last April 8 when the Philippine Navy's pride, BRP Gregorio del Pilar, a hand-me down from the United States, arrested Chinese fishermen in Panatag shoal, also known as Scarborough shoal, 124 nautical miles off Zambales.
A mishandling of the situation characterized by rhetorics from the Philippines' high officials led to a standoff that lasted almost two months. The territorial dispute spilled over to economic relations with China rejecting banana exports from the Philippines and Chinese tourists cancelling their scheduled trips to the Philippines.
The Philippines brought the issue to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. But instead of the tension easing with the help of the regional grouping, it worsened resulting in the souring of relations between the Philippines and Asean meet host Cambodia.
Both Almonte and Sta. Romana underscored the need for the Philippines to engage China, one of the world's biggest economies. But as Almonte said, "To deal with China, we have to deal with ourselves."
"We have to be a worthy friend but if there's anyone who wants to make an enemy of us, we should be a worthy enemy," said Almonte, who was the national security adviser when China was discovered to have built structures in Mischief Reef in Spratlys in 1994 during the Ramos administration.
Almonte cited four conditions for the Philippines to grow and develop. First is "we must come to terms with ourselves."
He said Filipinos should deal with questions on core values such as dignity, freedom, justice, compassion, discipline.
Second, internal wars must end. Third, land and non-land reforms must be completed. Fourth, power must be transferred from the few to the citizens.
In dealing with China, Sta. Romana advised to "proceed with caution and restraint but without fear."
The key, he said, is to seek a peaceful, diplomatic solution that will be mutually beneficial to both parties. "Brinkmanship can only lead to a dead-end, if not a disaster,' he said.
Sta. Romana quoted from Chinese strategist Sun Tzu's "The Art of War": "Know your opponent and know yourself, and then you will be able to attain victory."
He said the three major pillars of support of the Chinese regime are economic prosperity, nationalism, and the People's Liberation Army.
He said China is in the midst of a once-in-a-decade leadership transition and a new set of leaders is expected to emerge in the upcoming Communist party Congress.
"Under these circumstances, the top leaders cannot afford to look weak on the issue of national sovereignty. As a result, the hardline position becomes the default situation," he said.
He likened the behemoth Asian country to a wounded dragon who, "when challenged on the issue of national sovereignty, this dragon responds by breathing fire to its challengers."
Sta. Romana revealed that during the Panatag shoal standoff, the Chinese leadership weighed on teaching the Philippines a lesson.
But he said although the PH-US Mutual Defense Treaty is "leaky", the presence of the US 7th fleet in Pacific deterred China from taking military action.
He said the basic approach "should be to engage China while at the same time hedging our bets and preparing for any eventuality."
"To hedge and prepare for any eventuality means to build a minimum credible defense and to line up support from the US and other allies and friends," he advised.
But he cautioned: "We should be clear that while we have shared values and interests with the US, we cannot expect it to fight a war on our behalf, much less fight a war with China, given the extensive economic interests between the US and China."