By Arjay L. Balinbin, Reporter

PRESIDENT Rodrigo R. Duterte prefers a bilateral over a multilateral approach to the unresolved maritime dispute concerning the West Philippine Sea, Malacañang said on Tuesday.

“Sa ngayon bilateral muna (bilateral negotiations for now). Kasi (Because) I remember si Presidente,…a year ago, parang hindi siya masyadong (he was not) hot sa (on) multilateral [negotiations],” Presidential Spokesperson Salvador S. Panelo said at a news conference at the Palace on Tuesday when asked if a multilateral approach to resolving the West Philippine Sea issue was being considered.

He added: “Kasi nga eh ang may problema iyong dalawang bansa, di mag-bilateral muna kayo (Because, again, the problem is between the two countries [China and the Philippines], so you can have bilateral negotiations for now). Siguro (Maybe) if that fails, baka maging (that can be an) option iyon among the claimants.”

Asked what would convince the Philippine government to have the issue resolved at the multilateral level, he said: “We will have to wait for the President. The President is the one who charts the foreign policy. That is his right and discretion. We cannot be preempting the President on this.”

When asked if a bilateral negotiation with China is still “the most effective” way to address the issue, Mr. Panelo said: “Of course, yes. You don’t resolve the conflict by going to war or armed hostilities; it will not solve anything. In fact, all the conflicts in the world when not resolved by means of negotiations end up in armed hostilities.”

China and the Philippines began bilateral talks on the West Philippine Sea issue in 2017 through the Bilateral Consultation Mechanism (BCM).

Sought for comment, Dennis C. Coronacion, chairperson of the University of Santo Tomas (UST) Department of Political Science, said in a phone message: “For almost three years now, our government has adopted China’s recommendation to discuss the West Philippine Sea issue at the bilateral level and it seems that we have not gained anything significant from it.”

“At the very least, we were expecting China to leave alone the islands where we have been exercising sovereignty but they too were not spared from its incursions,” he also noted.

Also in a phone message, political science professor Marlon M. Villarin of the same university said: “The President [thinks] that bilateral negotiation is still the best approach, noting that the (2016) decision of the Arbitral Court will not facilitate the resolution of the conflict….”

He further said that the involvement of “more countries” in the negotiation process will only “aggravate the situation.”

“The way I look at the demeanor of the Chinese government, they don’t recognize international organizations like the United Nations (UN), especially on matters concerning their domestic and international interests,” Mr. Villarin said.

He noted as well that this is a “diplomatic challenge not only to the Philippines, but also to the European Union (EU) and the United States, considering that China, aside from being a militarily strong state, they somehow have a huge control or influence on the global economy. That is why regional organizations, at some point, are too silent on matters concerning Chinese virtual atrocities.”

“The pessimistic viewpoint of Mr. Duterte on the relevance of multilateral organizations like the UN and the EU somehow contributed to his belief that this conflict can be best solved bilaterally; because in a unilateral approach, President Duterte does not practically see the sincerity of bigger states like the US to really support us when things go south.”