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Differences must be resolved through peace, maximum restraint: Philippine Ambassador

作者:admin 2020-10-23

Differences must be resolved through peace, maximum restraint: Philippine Ambassador

Philippine Ambassador to China Jose Santiago L. Sta. Romana Photo: Li Hao/GT

Editor's Note: 

This year marks the 45th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and
the Philippines. The two countries stand together in the battle against the COVID-19 pandemic and enjoy cooperation in fields including investment and technology. Due to growing geopolitical rivalry in the South China Sea, bilateral relations also face some challenges. How will increasing competition between China and the US affect the Philippines' diplomacy? What will the Philippines do to prevent a potential armed conflict? How will the relations between China and the Philippines further develop? Global Times reporters Xie Wenting and Bai Yunyi (GT) interviewed Philippine Ambassador to China Jose Santiago L. Sta. Romana (Romana) on these topics.

GT: This year marks the 45th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and the Philippines. What do you predict for the future development of bilateral ties?

Romana: The Philippines and China established diplomatic relations in 1975. The bilateral relations have developed quite well over the decades. We went through some success, and particularly under President Duterte, the relations have entered a new chapter. We have improved the relations considerably in the areas of trade, investment, tourism, education, science, and technology. In 2018, we elevated the relationship to comprehensive strategic partnership. 

Actually, our relations go back much further. The foundation is the strong people-to-people contacts, historically and even in the present period. It's based on the common desire for peace, stability, and prosperity. 

I expect that the relations will continue to improve in the coming years. We have differences on certain issues, particularly in the South China Sea. The differences are real. And there are some, you could say they are quite deep and complicated, but we have reached a common understanding to resolve these differences peacefully, diplomatically and to manage the differences so that they do not become an obstacle to the further development of relations. 

Since the outbreak of this pandemic, we have opened a new arena in our cooperation, that is, the cooperation against the pandemic. We expect this to continue as we proceed further in combating the pandemic outbreak, particularly in the areas of vaccine development and also in the area of facilitating economic recovery. 

GT: Do you see the possibility of an armed conflict in the South China Sea? 

The risk for an armed conflict is increasing because of the escalating geopolitical rivalry and the strategic competition between the US and China. However, the armed conflict is not something that we wish to happen. It is not something that we desire. It would take a toll on all the countries involved and affect regional and global stability. 

The priority for us now, we think, should be on how to keep the pandemic under control. 

And that is why, from the point of view of the Philippines, we hope we can play a constructive and positive role in calling on all parties to exercise maximum restraint, as well as to avoid any miscalculation or any accident that could break out into an armed conflict. And if ever there is any armed conflict, we hope that we can exert all the possible diplomatic efforts to keep it under control and not to let it spiral out of control. 

GT: What can the Philippines do to avoid an armed conflict in the South China Sea?

Romana: From the point of view of the Philippines, we stand together with other Asian countries. We follow the idea of avoiding being entangled in the great power rivalry. We want to keep the region peaceful and stable, and free from geopolitical competition. 

I think the root of the problem is the escalating strategic competition between the US and China. So that's why for us, our call is for both sides to resort to diplomacy, not to resort to military action and to exercise maximum restraint. We ourselves will exercise at most restrained. 

We do not wish to get involved in this. We will try to play an active role through diplomatic channels to persuade. Our foreign policy is that we want to be friends to everyone. We want to maintain our good relations with China and the US. 

GT: Will the US shift of its stance on the South China Sea affect the stance of the Philippines?

Romana: We have differences with China on this issue. But we are willing to resolve this peacefully and diplomatically. Our position remains the same to maintain friendly relations with China while managing the differences and resolving it through discussion and negotiation.

What is happening is a very complicated situation. That is why I think all parties should reflect carefully on the gravity of the situation. I think that one side or both sides in this strategic rivalry would like to have the support of ASEAN. From our point of view, we are all definitely willing to listen to each side, but we make our own determination on the basis of our own national interests. 

Now, what is our national interest? The first and foremost is survival. We want to survive as a nation. We don't want to be sacrificed in a war that is caused by a geopolitical battle. There is an old saying when the elephants fight it is the grass that gets trampled flat. And that's why we are quite determined to stand together with other Asian neighbors to be able to uphold peace, stability, respect for international law, mutual respect, and most of all, maximum restraint, to avoid any miscalculation or any accident that could spiral out of control and lead to a bigger conflict. 

GT: The US has sanctioned 24 Chinese companies for allegedly advancing militarization in the South China Sea. But the Philippines didn't follow suit. How do you see these decisions? 

Romana: [Sanctioning 24 Chinese companies] is a decision by US authorities. As the Philippine government has already made it clear through its spokesman earlier, we will make our own determination based on our own interests. 

For us, right now, our interest is really in continuing the economic cooperation with China. The Philippines is no longer a colony of the US. We do not aspire to be a vassal state of the US or any country. So that's why we make our own determination based on our own analysis of the situation. And in this case, our own conclusion is that we can proceed, being able to mitigate whatever risks are involved. 

GT: The Philippine military recently signed an agreement with Dito Telecommunity. The company is a consortium of Philippine tycoon Dennis Uy's Udenna Corporation and China Telecom. Some Western media outlets criticized the decision, claiming it will be detrimental to Philippine national security. What's your take? 

In the Philippines, the speed of the internet was so slow. So there was a lot of dissatisfaction. And we thought what was lacking was the competition in the telecom market. 

The entry of China Telecom into the Philippine market is actually a joint venture. It's actually a Philippine company that is 60 percent owner of this joint venture and China Telecom has 40 percent investment.

Of course, China Telecom will provide technology. The setting up of towers in the military camps became a very controversial point in the Philippines. The element of suspicion it has aroused [was] not only among critics of the administration or critics of our policy toward China, but in the Western media. 

They try very much to criticize this and to attack this. But our position is quite clear. We'll try our best to mitigate the risk. The point we're making is that it is actually the armed forces that has the principal responsibility in protecting the Philippines. And they will try their best to mitigate the risk, while at the same time facilitating improvement in telecommunications and the telecom infrastructure in the Philippines.

Based on our friendly and cooperative relations with China, we can proceed and mitigate the risk. What we want to promote is a spirit of friendship and cooperation. But it shows how much work has to be done by both sides to be able to win the hearts and minds of the Filipino public. 

GT: Will the Philippines consider further cooperation with China in the fight against the COVID-19, especially for vaccine development?

Romana: The Philippines is interested to cooperate with China and other countries in terms of developing the vaccine. So they're talking about plans to include the Philippines in some of the vaccine development. Some Chinese companies are having exploratory talks. We also have government efforts led by our department of science and technology in terms of trying to establish the protocols for such cooperation. Our hope is that we can facilitate this further. The embassy can facilitate the cooperation further. 

However, at this stage, one can say that it's still in the exploratory and initial stage, but the Philippines are definitely interested. This is something we consider as very vital in terms of controlling the pandemic, which is still raging in the Philippines. So that's why we have reached out to China. 

We've also reached out to other countries in terms of having access. And that is why our position is that when a vaccine is developed, we hope that access can be guaranteed to the developing countries, particularly like the Philippines and other Southeast Asian countries. 

We take note of China's statement that it will give priority access to the Philippines and neighboring Southeast Asian countries.

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