By Joyce Ann L. Rocamora

Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo (PNA file photo by Avito Dalan)

MANILA – The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said on Wednesday the Philippines has yet come to a point where it would have to downgrade its relations with Beijing amid the latter’s harassments in the West Philippine Sea, but described the ties with the Asian power as “a bit choppy” at the moment.

“I would say, they’re a bit choppy. There are many issues which have come up recently. In the case of the Philippines, there’s really been an effort by the Philippines to assert our rights, in this particular case, in our EEZ (exclusive economic zone) in the West Philippine Sea,” Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo said during a lunch meeting with reporters in Manila.

Manalo said it is China’s continuous harassment of Filipino fishermen and efforts to block the Philippines from exercising its rights in the West Philippine Sea that are creating tensions in the area.

“So these actions have been a cause for raising tensions, we are merely trying to assert our rights. And unfortunately, we’re being hampered in doing so and in my personal belief, this is creating the tensions,” he said.

Despite these, Manalo said the DFA will continue to engage with China and manage tensions through dialogue and diplomatic means without compromising the country’s rights over the waters.

The DFA is working to convene the next Philippine-China Bilateral Consultation Mechanism (BCM) on the South China Sea in the Philippines this year.

Manalo said this would be the first undersecretary-level meeting between the two states since the 8th BCM was held in Shanghai on Jan. 17, when the two sides initially agreed to “de-escalate” the situation in the area.

“Of course, the issue is we have to find a way to manage. We have to have an understanding on how we can manage our relationship without increasing tensions,” he said.

But Manalo noted that “in many ways, China’s not really helping us to do so”.

“That’s the challenge because of the many incidents that are occurring. So that’s a challenge for us how to do that. But we are still definitely committed to seeking diplomatic means to manage our tensions,” he said.

“It doesn’t necessarily mean that we could reach an agreement on issues of concern immediately, that (will) take a long time. But we have to find ways to manage tensions,” he added.

Pending a resolution to maritime disputes with China, Manalo said the Philippines had proposed various ways to diffuse tension in the area, including on Philippine access to Scarborough Shoal and the development of fisheries in the area.

“In fact, we’re considering a number of proposals also from their side so definitely, we will have proposals, but it doesn’t mean may (there’s) agreement,” he said, citing the need for these proposals to go through proper channels for approval first.

Under the Marcos administration, Manalo reiterated that there had been no agreement nor Chinese proposals on Ayungin Shoal and Scarborough Shoal that have been approved.

“They (China) say there are agreements, but where? Show us,” he said.

“I don’t recall ever having discussed proposals to have such agreements. If there was a proposal for an agreement, we would go through channels and ensure that it has the approval of the highest authorities,” he added. (PNA)