The Philippines has rejected a Chinese offer to withdraw its ships from the Scarborough Shoal, if Manila did the same and delayed international arbitration on the territorial dispute.
China's offer was made "informally through back channels", Roilo Golez, a former congressman and presidential national security adviser told the South China Morning Post yesterday.
Citing a "very reliable source", Golez said: "The carrot is that there's going to be mutual withdrawal [of ships off Scarborough Shoal] provided the Philippines will not file the memorial [a "memorandum" setting out the Philippines' position on the dispute] on March 30."
Another source said the offer had been made in January.
In Beijing, foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang rejected claims that such a proposal had been made regarding Scarborough Shoal, known in China as Huangyan Island.
"China's determination of upholding territorial sovereignty and integrity is unshakeable. We will not do any trade with our territory and maritime rights and interest," Qin said.
"The Philippines side wants to file arbitration against China on the issue. We are opposed to that and we will never accept that. Our position has not changed."
According to Golez, Beijing was not asking Manila to scrap the arbitration case altogether, but that they postpone filing it until after the March 30 deadline set by the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS).
Lauro Baja, a retired Philippine diplomat and former president of the United Nations Security Council, said that "missing the deadline will weaken our case because it means we are not ready. The [public] perception will be negative".
Two Philippine sources familiar with China's offer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that President Benigno Aquino had discussed the proposal, which included other incentives as well as the withdrawal, with his cabinet in January.
While Aquino has not publicly acknowledged the offer, the sources pointed to the president's February 4 interview with The New York Times as "partly" a response to the proposed deal.
"If we say yes to something we believe is wrong now, what guarantee is there that the wrong will not be further exacerbated down the line?" he told the newspaper. He later added: "At what point do you say, 'Enough is enough'? Well, the world has to say it - remember that the Sudetenland was given in an attempt to appease Hitler to prevent world war two."
Golez explained why accepting the offer would have been wrong for the Philippines. "That is not a fair exchange [because China should be the one to] withdraw from our own exclusive economic zone, where Scarborough is located," he said.
Zhang Mingliang, a specialist in Southeast Asian affairs at Jinan University, said China feared that the Philippines' bid to internationalise the South China Sea dispute would complicate the situation.