By Joyce Ann L. Rocamora

Philippine Ambassador to the US Jose Manuel Romualdez (PNA file photo)

MANILA – The real flashpoint in the region lies in the West Philippine Sea instead of Taiwan Strait where China’s response is expected to be “more calculated,” the Philippines’ envoy to the United States said Wednesday.

Ambassador Jose Manuel Romualdez explained that the situation in the waters, where China is a claimant state, is much more unpredictable and covers a larger area where “an accident can easily happen”.

“My opinion is, the real problem and the real flashpoint, which is why I’m telling you how critical it is for us, is in the West Philippine Sea,” he said during the Consular Corps of the Philippines meeting in Makati City.

“All of these skirmishes that is happening there, there can be one major accident and either one of our countries, the US or the Philippines can invoke the MDT (Mutual Defense Treaty) and when we do, a commitment made by the US or a commitment we make will happen then all hell breaks loose,” he added.

The government remains “cautious” as this is the exact same scenario Manila wants to avoid, he said.

“That’s what we are working hard on. We want to avoid having to find a situation where we will have to call each other and say we want to invoke the Mutual Defense Treaty,” he said.

He made the remarks when asked about Washington DC’s likely response to the possibility of China taking over Taiwan.

Echoing an assessment from a fellow envoy in the US, Romualdez believes that Beijing would refrain from making a move unless it is certain that it can militarily take over the island.

China considers the self-ruled Taiwan as a breakaway province.

‘Should Trump win’

In the same forum, Romualdez said Washington DC’s position over the Indo-Pacific would remain should Donald Trump win the presidency.

“One of the close advisers of [former] President Trump has indicated that most likely, if President Trump is lucky to get back to the White House he will not change his policy towards the Indo-Pacific region,” he said.

The US has repeatedly reminded Beijing that interfering with the Philippines’ maritime operations in its waters is unlawful and “undermines” stability in the region.

In its previous statements, the US said it stands by the Philippines and is committed to the MDT.

Lodging of protests

In a press conference at the House of Representatives on Wednesday, House Special Committee on the WPS chairperson Neptali Gonzales II said the government will continue to file diplomatic protests against China’s aggressive actions in the WPS to show the Philippines is not surrendering its claim over the area.

Gonzales said the reported illegal activities of China in the WPS territory and the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) should not go unnoticed.

He said lodging formal protests serves as notice to the whole world that the Philippines is not relinquishing an inch of its territory or EEZ.

“We have to show to the world that we are not relinquishing our claim. For us to be silent, halimbawa may ginawang ganito, wala na, hindi na natin napansin, eh di yung ating mga (for example they did something illegal, then we ignore it, then the) countries who are supportive of our cause will also lose interest if we ourselves cannot show any interest,” Gonzales said.

As the chair of the special committee, Gonzales said he is in close contact with the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS).

Gonzales said diplomatic protests are better than silence.

“In the meantime, that’s what we can do. Dahil kasi (Because), at least, itong (the) DFA can continuously make diplomatic protests even if viewed by some na wala naman nangyayari (that nothing really happens [with these protests]),” he added.

Davao Oriental Rep. Cheeno Miguel Almario, for his part, said one of the things discussed in the special committee is to have a sustainable presence to assert the Philippines’ rights in the WPS.

South Cotabato Rep. Peter Miguel underscored that diplomacy is still key to de-escalating the tensions in the WPS.

“I just hope na magkaroon talaga ng diplomatic talk. Siguro ‘yun ang pinakamaganda with this incursion, to me it’s bullying kasi panahon na ng diplomasya (that there would be an opportunity for a diplomatic talk. That is the best option with this incursion, [which] to me it’s bullying because this is an era of diplomacy),” Miguel said. (with a report from Filane Cervantes/PNA)