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Filipinos back government on China dispute, but want more diplomacy

While most Filipinos say that their government should not yield to to Chinese pressure in the South China Sea, others say that Manila could improve its diplomatic efforts to resolve the issue.

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However the Philippines does not have an ambassador in Beijing at present, and in response to Chinese complaints of a communications gap, last week the Manila government appointed two temporary envoys to handle business relations and prepare for official visits from the Philippines to China.

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“We have noted the Philippines’ attitude of valuing bilateral relations, and we hope to see concrete steps from the Philippine side so as to create a necessary atmosphere and favorable environment for bilateral cooperation,” Chinese government spokesperson Hong Lei said in a press conference in Beijing on Thursday.

Cultural exchanges could help smooth relations over, say some. “It is more important now than ever to have non-political projects between our countries,” says Doreen Yu, associate editor at the Philippine Star, one of the country's main English-language dailies. “The sum of relations between the Philippines and China is not the West Philippine Sea.” 

Ms. Yu organized a ballet exchange between Manila and Shanghai – but the project is in limbo as the Chinese dancers have not confirmed whether or not they will travel in the wake of the April stand-off.

The crisis comes just ahead of mid-term elections in the Philippines next year. This means some of the country's politicians could use it as a platform for patriotic grandstanding. “The fear is some misguided rogue person or group will raise a pseudo-nationalistic flag,” says Yu.

Already heated rhetoric has contributed to anti-Chinese protests across Manila – though these attracted only a few hundred people. Still, the country's leaders should better choose the words they use in comments about China, say some Filipinos. “Using emotive terms like 'bullying' is good copy but bad diplomacy,” says Teresita Ang See, who is head of Manila's main Chinese-Filipino cultural center.

Ms. Ong says she spoke to several Chinese students who planned to cut short their studies in Manila and return home. “Their parents want them back,” she says. “Some in China are afraid there might be some retaliation against Chinese here, but that shows a lack of understanding of Filipino culture,” says Ms. Ang See, “We are a tolerant, understanding, Christian people,” she says.

US role

As China's economic and military weight grows, the US has sought new friends in Southeast Asia, enhancing ties with Myanmar and Vietnam. Philippine President Benigno Aquino is likely to ink additional defense co-operation between the US and the Philippines when he visits the White House later in 2012. The US and the Philippines are treaty allies since 1951.

But for Teresita Ang See, the US involvement in the dispute could mean trouble. “They should keep their hands off,” she says, adding that recent bilateral military exercises held in the Philippines could have prompted China's recent forays into the Scarborough Shoal area.

The Philippines says it wants to resolve the dispute by seeking recourse to international law. “Taking the issue to the realm of international law will be useful as it will take the conflict to a neutral and legal forum rather than political,” says Professor Baviera,

However for now military tensions remain high, something that the poorly-armed Philippines does not want. “Neither of us has any interest in escalation,” says Secretary Carandang.

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