Filipinos united in shoal row

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 16 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 16 May, 2012, 12:00am


The Philippines' fractious power blocs, as well as the public, have finally found something to unite them - they've swung solidly behind the government in asserting a claim to Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea.

In a column titled, 'We can't turn tail and run', former economic planning secretary Solita Monsod, who has often criticised President Benigno Aquino on other issues, said that 'our turning tail and running now will just give China victory on a silver platter'.

Last week, Cebu Archbishop Jose Palma said he backed a plan by Filipinos around the world to hold rallies in front of Chinese embassies and consulates. The archbishop is president of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines, which has had an acrimonious relationship with the Aquino administration.

Even the founder of the Communist Party of the Philippines, whose military arm continues to wage war against the government, dismissed China's territorial claims as absurd. According to Jose Maria Sison, 'as a matter of principle, the Filipino people must assert their national sovereignty and Philippine territorial integrity'.

A top government official, who declined to be identified, said that the stand-off in the South China Sea 'is one of the issues being handled by the administration where the support is solid - the public sentiment is very, very clear'. But he said 'one of the dangers is that the sentiment might get out of hand' in terms of a backlash against the local Chinese community.

This concern was echoed by Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform, who said the issue had stirred up the nationalist sentiments of Filipino people. 'At this point anybody who opposes the position would have a very big problem with public opinion,' he said.

The top government official said that while the stand-off had caused some concern at the presidential palace and 'is obviously one of the major priorities' of the government, there was never any thought that the situation would spin out of control. He said Aquino was meeting regularly on the issue with the secretaries of foreign affairs and defence, the executive secretary and the office of the political adviser. 'Considering that the people in the admin have been studying this matter and have been on top of it from the start, I'm confident it will be resolved.'

He said the incident at Scarborough Shoal was an opportunity for the administration to achieve two goals: assert the country's position on the shoal, and signal a break from the previous administration's handling of China.

Commenting on the role of a Philippine navy ship in the stand-off, which it later withdrew, the official said: 'It just so happened we had to be vocal. It called for that kind of assertion.'

He said it was 'a break from the way we conducted relations under the administration of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo where they tended to rely more on the strength of personal relations'.

Casiple agreed that there was a need to make a break with the previous government's approach to China. 'What we had [then] was an opportunistic policy, in that the previous people in government tried to seize the opportunity of relations with China to make themselves comfortable arrangements.' Significantly, whatever opposition there is to the government's handling of the situation comes from Arroyo allies. Rigoberto Tiglao, a former Arroyo spokesman, said 'this president [Aquino] is making us the laughing stock of the world' by proposing to bring the dispute to an international court.

Still he said that the incident showed 'room for improvement' in terms of handling China. 'China wants to be treated as a power and we're not giving them that treatment - sending a navy ship in response to a fishery problem raised the tension.'

Casiple said that 'the Philippine media has been too belligerent. They've been fond of emphasising what is sensational, for instance quoting a particular Chinese daily, which does not represent an official Chinese position'.