Both China and the Philippines have mishandled their dispute over Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal in the West Philippine Sea, a leading British scholar said Monday, noting Beijing’s obstinacy about its sovereignty claims and Manila’s ill-advised decision to send a naval vessel to confront Chinese fishing boats last April.

This developed as the Philippines vowed to keep speaking out on the global stage about its territorial row with China, as an effort by Southeast Asian nations to forge a united stance at the ASEAN Summit in Cambodia crumbled.

In a television interview Monday, Martin Jacques, author of the best-selling book “When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order,” said China could have opted for “joint development” with the other claimants of the resource-rich Spratlys region instead of asserting its sovereignty over it.

The ensuing cordon by Chinese ships around Panatag Shoal after a war of words with the Philippines raised the specter that the title of Jacques book was a fast-approaching reality.

“I don’t think the Chinese are going to withdraw the sovereignty claims, but I would have thought that in all the disputes, there was a way of resolving them or handling them amicably, which is to not make the sovereignty issue foremost but find a way of… for example, exploiting the hydrocarbons and the fishery stocks and so on on a joint basis, joint development,” Jacques said in an interview with News To Go anchor and GMA News Online editor-in-chief Howie Severino.

The Spratlys and other island groups and reefs in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), are being claimed in whole or in part by China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines.

As for the Philippines, Jacques noted that its decision to send an armed naval ship to Panatag Shoal— a sprawling offshore area off the country’s northwestern province of Zambales — during the April standoff was an “overreaching” provocation.

“One measure of this is that the other ASEAN members have been rather critical of the Philippine government in relation to this,” Jacques said, adding both Indonesia and Malaysia have said that “there’s no need to go overboard.”

“The Chinese are just using coast guard vessels, but they’re not naval vessels,” Jacques said.

Philippine officials, however, have never considered the deployment of the Navy vessels as “overboard,” judging by previous statements.

The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), for one, said by sending Navy ships, it was just enforcing laws in the shoal.

“The Panatag Shoal is an integral part of Philippine territory and the Philippine Navy is enforcing Philippine laws in the Shoal, which is within the Philippine Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and Continental Shelf,” the DFA said in April.

In his third State of the Nation Address, President Benigno Aquino III asked China to respect Philippine sovereignty, noting that — despite the sending of Navy vessels — his administration will handle the territorial dispute “with utmost calm.”

“Hindi naman po siguro kalabisan na hilingin sa kabilang panig na galangin ang ating karapatan, gaya ng paggalang natin sa kanilang mga karapatan bilang kapwa bansang nasa iisang mundong kailangang pagsaluhan,” Aquino said.

Unclear position

Jacques also cited the “unclear positions” of the Chinese government regarding the dispute, noting the seven different Chinese agencies involved in the issue.

“The Chinese actually have two public positions. One is the so-called nine-dash line, which is they claim more or less the whole of the South China Sea, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs position which is just the Spratlys and the Paracels, which is not an unreasonable claim,” he said.

Jacques also advised the Philippine government against getting itself heavily committed to the American position regarding the territorial dispute. He said this could be done by “trying to find a new diplomatic relationship with the Chinese.”

He explained that after having lost ground to China over the last 10 years, the United States is trying to make a comeback through the so-called American pivot—moving its forces away from other parts of the world and toward Asia.

PHL as US pawn?

“I think it’s very important in this situation that the countries in the region don’t allow themselves to do either China’s bidding on the one hand, or America’s bidding on the other hand,” he said.

Noting the projection that the Chinese economy will be bigger than the American economy by 2016, Jacques said it is likely that China will replace the U.S. as the dominant power in the world.

He also said that it is important for the Philippines, with its generally “Westernized” views, to face the fact that China is an emerging superpower.

“The Americans are playing their own game in this region because they’ve got a much bigger relationship with China globally. And so it’s very important that the Philippines doesn’t find itself as a sort of American pawn in this game, and it doesn’t in any way endanger its long-term strategic relationship with China because this is going to be their relationship in the future,” Jacques said.

Last month, President Aquino expressed hopes that China’s “ultra-nationalist” sentiment eases after its leadership change, and thus help in resolving the dispute over Panatag Shoal.

Just recently, China’s Vice President Xi Jinping was elected general secretary of the Communist Party of China, replacing President Hu Jintao. Hu, however, will remain China’s president until March, when the annual meeting of the parliament will be held. Also during the meeting, Li Keqiang — Premier Wen Jiabao’s designated heir — will become China’s new premier.

– Carmela G. Lapeña