Former Senator Leticia Ramos-Shahani Shares Her Thoughts On Philippines-China Relations

Photo credit: Lila Shahani | From:

Philippine-Chinese relations, between these two neighbors who have peacefully interacted with each other in the past, are both profound and complex because they have been based on people-to-people relations.  The Philippines, representing the smaller and younger culture, has been on the receiving end of Chinese culture and migration for centuries. With its ancient empires continuing into the People's Republic of China (PROC), and its organized systems of writing and learning, China has had a great impact on Philippine culture in a way not comparable to the impact of Philippine culture on Chinese culture (of which little is known). Think of how Chinese food has become the staple of ordinary Filipino cooking- lugaw, pancit, siopao. Or consider the countless intermarriages between the two peoples so that those who make the list of the richest Filipinos are majority Filipino-Chinese. Moreover, most Filipinos have a sprinkling of Chinese blood in them. Common Filipino words pertaining to family relationships, business, etc. are of Chinese origin- kuya, ate, tawad.   Such Chinese influence is not unique to the Philippines; it is widespread throughout the ASEAN region.

Philippine foreign policy did not develop into the eyeball-to-eyeball relationship it now is between the Philippines and China until the outbreak of the West Philippine Sea (WPS) issue, well into the 1990s. It is true that relations with China under Chiang-Kai-Shek were severed when Mao-Tse-Tung won control over China, but China still seemed far removed from us, and ASEAN served as a buffer to a possible "domino" effect of communism.  The quarrel then was about ideology, but even with an active leftist movement in the Philippines, the fundamentals of our foreign policy - sovereignty, national territory, and the national interest - remained unaffected by the ideological rift with China.

With the issue on the West Philippine Sea, however, the fundamentals of Philippine-Chinese relations have become drastically altered, and now need to be understood within the context of a threatening military-economic power game. As one who was born and raised in Lingayen, Pangasinan's capital town, right smack on the Lingayen Gulf, where thousands of families depend on the sea for their livelihood,  issues of sovereignty and territorial integrity are to me not intellectual issues to be analyzed for academic or theoretical  lessons in international relations, but they are real life-and-death issues, as for millions of Filipinos and hundreds of  local government units. "Foreign policy" has thus become conflated with "domestic policy".

What must Filipinos do? The list is long but here are my list of priorities. We have to understand and act accordingly that: (a) as citizens of the Philippines, we are duty-bound to defend our sovereignty, national territory and national interest because no one else will;  (b) under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, ratified by the Philippines and China, the Philippines, as an archipelago, and China, as a coastal state, both have rights and obligations that must be respected and honored; (c) as citizens of the Philippines we have a responsibility to defend a coastline which happens to be the 5th longest in the world; (d) we have to live peacefully with the world, especially with our neighbors. However, Filipinos MUST know the realities of their nationhood FIRST and therefore must actively FORGE, TOGETHER WITH THE STATE, AN INDEPENDENT FOREIGN POLICY.

Filipinos want to live in peace with their Chinese neighbors, and people-to-people relationships are extremely important. But Filipinos must understand that no one will defend the Philippines except the Filipinos.  Our colonial past should teach us this painful lesson- we have been conquered by Spain, the USA, Japan and we have been bullied by China. Of course, let's give diplomacy, both at governmental as well as people-to-people levels, a chance. But let us take the path towards an independent foreign policy; the journey is long and uncertain but for Filipinos there is no other way.

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