Enrile to Duterte: Make China a friend, not foe; PH can't afford to antagonize Beijing

Published May 17, 2021, 10:22 PM

by Genalyn Kabiling

The Philippines should befriend China “without surrendering our rights” instead of antagonizing the Asian neighbor over the West Philippine Sea dispute, according to former Senator Juan Ponce Enrile.

Former Senator Juan Ponce Enrile delivers his remarks when he attended a meeting with President Duterte and Cabinet members in Malacañang on May 17, 2021 (RTVM screenshot)

Enrile said the country could not afford to make China a “foe” and will gain nothing by antagonizing Beijing. The former Senate President instead suggested negotiating with China and possibly consider oil exploration in the contested sea.

Enrile issued the statement when he attended President Duterte’s regular “Talk to the People” in Malacanang on Monday night, May 17. He was invited by Duterte to attend the meeting at the Palace to shed light on the West Philippine Sea issues.

“As far as I’m concerned, we will not gain anything by antagonizing China. I’m not pro-China. I do not have any interest in China but as a Filipino, I will take this position to protect my countrymen, to protect our core territory, to protect our economy. Maybe we can get better by talking to China instead of being aggressive,” Enrile said in his remarks aired on state television.

“We are in this region. Realistically, we cannot ignore China. We have to deal with China. Instead of making China a foe or irritate China, why don’t we befriend China without surrendering our rights? We befriend China because we are Orientals, we understand each other,” he added.

Given that South China Sea is reportedly rich with oil reserves, Enrile is also doubtful that China would “easily bow to anybody without asserting its rights over the area.”

He said the Philippines should “leave” the issue of China’s territorial claims and instead try to talk to get “better deal with China.”

“We cannot afford to antagonize China,” he said. “We lose more if we antagonize China. We have no choice except to negotiate with China,” he added.

He recognized that South China Sea was crucial to China’s growth, citing 80 percent of its energy and food pass through the strategic waterway. “To China, West Philippine Sea is a very strategic route. If that area is closed or controlled by America, Japan or any other country, China in two months will wither away as a nation. They will have famine, riots, they will have no economy,” he said.

Despite China’s claims over the disputed area, Enrile maintained that the country’s claim to the West Philippine Sea springs from the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, saying it was “simply interpreted” by the arbitral body.

He admitted though that the arbitral ruling in favor of the Philippines could not be enforced even if the issue is elevated before the United Nations. He said the UN had no police power to enforce the ruling that nullified China’s claim over the sea.

For the meantime, Enrile suggested that the Philippines should focus on strengthening military capability, economic growth, and even pursuing oil exploration in the Philippine Rise also known as Benham Rise.

He said the country could go to Europe to get technology and capital for oil exploration in West PH Sea or “deal directly with China.”

“If I may suggest we get what we can get from China on the West Philippine Sea, use it to strengthen our military capability and exploit Philippine Rise,” he said.

Enrile also agreed with the President’s position to engage China in a dialogue to address the maritime conflict. He said it was prudent to talk rather than use emotion or let tempers flare.

“No one else can frame or formulate the foreign policy of the Philippines except President Rodrigo Roa Duterte, not Carpio, Albert Del Rosario or Juan Ponce Enrile. There’s only one person, that’s the President of the Philippines,” he said.