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New year, better ties?

In Manila’s Quinta market, retailers of food ingredients that were open on the eves of Christmas 2015 and New Year’s Day were closed yesterday.

But it was business as usual at shopping malls, which were festooned with the bright red and gold colors of the season, and not just because of Valentine’s Day. The gold is for luck in greeting the start of the Year of the Monkey today.

Kung hei fat choi to all – it’s our Pinoy way of spelling the Chinese greeting. May your tribe, wealth and happiness increase in this new lunar year!

With a lot of help from commercial marketing, the big Chinese celebration has taken root in our country. Pinoys with no known Chinese ancestry are reading up on DIY feng shui and buying lucky objects for the Monkey Year. They are adorning house and office entrances, windows and work desks with good luck charms, learning to cook tikoy and preparing noodles for the Lunar New Year. Some are even giving away ang pao and setting off fireworks.

Like our peculiar brand of Catholicism, heavily laced with animist, Buddhist and Confucian practices, our Chinese rituals are also hybrids. Authentic Tsinoys are wondering where we got many of the beliefs about attracting luck. The practices have certainly brought prosperity to many merchants.

Whether authentic, hybrid or pure concoctions of the Pinoy imagination, all the practices are deemed to be Chinese. They are lumped together with all the good things we associate with Chinese culture, starting with the mouth-watering cuisine. The Chinese are the only people who can make me eat scorpions and sea slugs – and make me ask for more.

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Then there’s the natural medicine, which can be pricey in Manila, but it works. Not too long ago I suffered for months from frozen shoulder (women call it shopper’s shoulder). I avoided pain-killing pills and tried patches instead. When the pain spread to my rib cage, I decided that desperate times called for desperate measures: I went to a Chinese clinic, where the doctor spoke through an interpreter. He diagnosed my affliction by taking my pulse and studying my face, and then prescribed a week’s worth of herbal medication that included some foul-tasting and smelling balls wrapped in gold leaf. I was given a list of the ingredients, none of which I recognized. But the pain disappeared in four days and never returned.

Pinoy friends teased me that such medication worked only on Chinese and hilaw na Tsinoy like me. Maybe they’re right, but that clinic, as far as I know, is still doing brisk business in Metro Manila, and its clients include a lot of non-Chinese.

Pinoys practice feng shui, read up on their Chinese horoscope and celebrate the Lunar New Year with the Chinese. There’s much to celebrate this New Year. It seems Pinoys have managed to compartmentalize all the positive aspects of our cultural ties with China, dissociating these with tension over maritime territorial disputes.

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The Year of the Sheep just past has been bad for Philippines-China relations, although it exited on a friendlier note when Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario, despite his acute back pain problem, attended the Spring Festival reception hosted last week by the Chinese embassy. Chinese President Xi Jinping also did not skip the annual summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic cooperation forum in Manila last November.

Despite the friendly gesture from the Philippines’ top diplomat (the event wasn’t even China’s National Day), which looked like a farewell of sorts for Del Rosario, Beijing is said to have already written off improved ties with Manila under President Aquino’s watch.

Instead the Chinese are said to be keenly awaiting the results of the Philippine elections in May and monitoring the presidential candidates’ views on China.

A common question is whether any of the presidential bets will withdraw the case against China, now being heard by a UN-backed arbitral tribunal, to define the Philippines’ maritime entitlements in the South China Sea.

My guess is the case will be pursued, regardless of who is elected president. A final ruling that cannot be appealed is expected within the year, and the betting in the Philippines is that the tribunal in The Hague will rule in our favor. What other options are there to protect the nation’s territorial integrity? We can’t shoo the Chinese away, and no one – not even Uncle Sam – is about to make the Chinese stop their island-building activities in waters we claim as our own.

Whoever becomes president can’t look like he or she is running away from certain victory.

The next question is whether Beijing will abide by the ruling of the international court. China, after all, is a signatory like the Philippines to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which we have invoked in the case. India also immediately bowed to a ruling in a similar dispute involving Bangladesh.

But China isn’t India. Several diplomats and other foreign observers tell me they believe Beijing will ignore the ruling – at least for the short term, which in Chinese reckoning can mean many years.

All the presidential candidates may differ only in the way they will try to reach out to Beijing in case the international court rules in our favor. We’re not enemies, after all, and it is in both our strategic interests to remain on friendly terms. Centuries of goodwill and deep friendship built on blood ties and cultural and economic exchanges deserve saving.

Some of the candidates have already said that in dealing with China, we must be keenly aware of face. The candidates have also expressed openness to joint undertakings with other claimants even while territorial disputes remain unresolved.

There has been speculation that China intensified its island building after Manila filed the arbitration case. But the complaint was filed after the Chinese cordoned off Panatag or Scarborough Shoal and began shooing away Zambales fishermen from their traditional sources of livelihood.

An expansionist policy in disputed waters, which openly challenges the influence of the Unites States and its regional allies notably Japan, is something that isn’t approved overnight by the Communist Party of China. It is part of long-term national policy – the type that is rolled out during China’s changes of leadership every decade.

That policy has eroded a lot of goodwill between our countries, affecting all aspects of bilateral ties. At least Chinese cultural influence has not waned.

Maybe all that the Chinese want is respect befitting their physical, economic (and ever growing military) size. But attaining this objective will be easier when they consider that respect is a two-way street.

Respect is earned, not imposed.


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