As a territorial row between China and the Philippines continues in the South China Sea – known here as the West Philippine Sea – Filipinos are nervously gauging how that will impact relations between the two countries.
Last week China denied it was increasing military readiness one month into a stand-off, which started April 10 after the Philippine Navy boarded Chinese fishing boats allegedly-poaching near the Scarborough Shoal.
While most Filipinos say that their government is correct in not yielding to Chinese pressure over its claims to the South China Sea, and there has been something of a cooling-off in recent days, others say that Manila could better manage the finer points of its diplomacy and engage the country's Chinese-Filipino community to build bridges with mainland Chinese.
"Both sides have sought to de-escalate the immediate problem by imposing a fishing ban in the area," says Aileen Baviera, professor of Asian Studies at the University of the Philippines. However, the root of the dispute remains, she adds. "The conflicting claims on the West Philippine Sea are still there."
Despite the fact that the shoal sits about 140 miles from the Philippines' main island, Beijing says it and the surrounding waters belong to China. China's claims to the resource-rich South China Sea has increasingly put Beijing at loggerheads with Vietnam, where the South China Sea is known as the East Sea, as well as the Philippines.
“We cannot give in on this, we cannot say that [the area] belongs to China,” says presidential spokesperson, Secretary Ricky Carandang.
One indicator of the impact of the recent deterioration in relations with China is how Manila's Chinatown businesses are doing. In the past month, they’ve taken a hit. The gold dealers and Chinese medicine shops are mostly empty, and the numbers of Chinese visitors have plummeted.
“We lost 65 bookings due to the travel warning from China,” says Bety Ong, operations manager at the Lido Paris hotel in Chinatown. “This has affected our business greatly.” She is a 4th-generation Chinese living in the Philippines and recently visited China. “I flew back here from a visit to Beijing on May 13, the flight was half-empty.”
People to people
But despite the diplomatic row and naval tensions, it seems people-to-people relations between the 1 million Chinese-Filipinos and the rest of the country's almost 100 million people remain good.
Daisy Gernale-Posadas – who works at the same hotel as Ms. Ong – says “there is no animosity between us.” The Chinese presence in the Philippines dates to at least the beginning of Spanish rule in the 16th century. Intermarriage with other Filipinos has been common, and there was no local equivalent to the cold war era anti-Chinese pogroms that occurred during that time period in Indonesia and Malaysia.
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.
“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.
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.