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A high-speed train of friendship, cooperation

A HIGH-SPEED railroad – this was how Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Zhao Jinhua described China-Philippine relations today following President Duterte’s recent state visit to Beijing. After their initial meeting, Duterte met again with China President Xi Jinping at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in Lima, Peru.

The initial result of the new turn in Philippine-Chinese relations was the return of Filipino fishermen to their traditional fishing grounds at Scarborough Shoal, known to us as Panatag and Bajo de Masinloc. The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague had earlier ruled that Scarborough should remain open to fishermen of all nations – Filipino, Chinese, Vietnamese, etc. – but China, claiming sovereignty, had rejected the Arbitral Court ruling.

As a result of continuing talks between Philippine and Chinese officials, Ambassador Zhao said Monday night at a Christmas celebration with Filipino newsmen that China will be importing more fruits and other agricultural products from the Philippines. It will be investing in more infrastructure projects. Many more Chinese will be coming as tourists.

All this because President Duterte decided to drop the former adversarial position of the country towards China. The Philippines, during the previous Aquino administration, had raised its claims in the South China Sea to the Arbitral Court in The Hague. It did win its case, but there are no provisions for enforcing the ruling. And China has pointedly announced from the beginning that it does not recognize the proceedings.

From an adversarial position to one of cooperation – this is the position taken by the Duterte administration. In the words of new Philippine Ambassador to China Chito Sta. Romana, the Philippines has chosen to set aside for now issues like sovereignty that cannot be resolved and fast-track instead non-contentious matters like economics, trade, and investment.

We see China as a partner, he said. In turn, China, which used to see the Philippines as a pawn of the United States, now sees as it a friendly neighbor. The two nations continue to stand pat on their rival claims to sovereignty over some islands and shoals in the South China Sea, such as Scarborough, but any action on these claims will be suspended – for a hundred years if necessary.

The train of China-Philippines cooperation is now roaring forward, Ambassador Zhao said Monday. The coming year 2017 will be a year of enhanced friendship and cooperation. “Our differences will not go away tomorrow, but what is important is that we can handle our differences properly so that we can continue to focus and enhance our common interests.”

We look forward to this new era of cooperation.