On 26 April 2019, Senatorial Candidate Erin Tañada said that bilateral talks with a superpower do not favor a smaller country like the Philippines, “Mas malakas leverage ng China kung bilateral ang negotiations. Baka brasuhin tayo. It would be better na may common stand tayo with the other smaller claimants like Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia. A good step in the right direction would be finally getting everyone to sign the code of conduct for the disputed region between ASEAN and China.”
On May 1, 2019, Malacañang announced that holding bilateral talks with China was the best option to resolve its long-standing territorial dispute with the global superpower in the West Philippine Sea. Presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo said that the country had no other alternative considering that it was incapable of prevailing against China in an armed confrontation.
On this point, Tañada said the position of the administration was overly simplistic, “Una, malinaw naman na hindi lang dalawa ang option natin: bilateral talks o giyera. Masyadong simplistic naman ‘yun. Parang tinatakot tayo ng sarili nating pamahalaan para mapilitan tayong sumang-ayon sa gusto nila. Tama naman sila na walang may gusto ng giyera, pero hindi lang naman bilateral talks ang option natin.”However, many authorities are of the opinion that bilateral negotiations favor China, which will always be the larger party in any territorial contest with its neighbors. That is why the Association of South East Asian Nations or ASEAN, which includes the Philippines and a number of other countries with similar claims, has been trying to enter into a multilateral agreement with China vis-à-vis a Code of Conduct covering the disputed territory.
“Tandaan natin, hindi lamang ang China ang may overlapping claim. Pati na rin ang Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, at Taiwan ay may sariling interpretasyon sa pagmamay-ari ng Spratleys. Kung makipagsundo tayo hinggil sa mga isla sa China, nangangahulugan ba ito na hindi na kailangang makipag-ayos rin sa mga ibang bansang may sariling claim? Hindi ba’t gawa nang kapwa miyembro rin ng ASEAN ang karamihan sa kanila, dapat kasama natin sila sa usapan?” Tañada continues.
Maritime law experts even suggested that the West Philippine Sea be declared a “global common” – a term typically used to refer to the earth’s shared natural resources, such as the deep oceans, the atmosphere, outer space, and the Polar Regions. Instead of drawing ownership lines, Prof. Clarita Carlos, a political science and foreign policy expert at the University of the Philippines, suggests that the claimants focus on preserving fish stocks and century-old corals and reefs from irreversible damage.
Recently, the harvesting of giant clams in the Scarborough Shoal by Chinese fishermen caused widespread outrage in the Philippines. These clams were seeded by Filipino Marine Scientists as part of conservation efforts.
Tañada said, “China has a history of saying one thing and doing something completely different. Kung maalala niyo, sabi ng China hindi imi-militarize ang South China Sea. Pero ano nangyari? Ngayon, may bombers, sundalo at radar stations na sa artificial island nila doon. Kaya kahit may mapag-usapan sa bilateral talks, ano ang guarantee na susunod sa usapan ang China?”