‘Basketball diplomacy’

by Ambassador B. Romualdez

PBBM poses with Gilas Pilipinas National Team at the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2023 Opening | Photo via PCO

After watching the FIBA basketball game between China and the Philippines, it was so ironic that in 1974, when we first reached out to establish formal diplomatic relations, we used basketball diplomacy to start the ball rolling in opening diplomatic relations with China.

It was a privilege for me to join the Beijing mission in 1974 led by my uncle, Ambassador Eduardo “Danding” Romualdez, our Philippine Ambassador then to Washington, DC. I was a neophyte news reporter for Channel 9 at that time. Our basketball team was composed of the top 15 basketball players in the country, including Sonny Jaworski, Ramon Fernandez, Francis Arnaiz, and Jimmy Mariano, with then-Basketball Association of the Philippines president Lito Puyat as deputy head of mission, and Joe Almonte who was a colonel assigned to the National Intelligence Coordinating Agency.

Looking back, Beijing struck me as rather gloomy and backward, with old brick buildings and only one hotel where foreign guests were billeted – the Friendship Hotel built by the Russians in the 1950s. Premier Chou En Lai formally received us at the Great Hall of the People. During the basketball games, we had the opportunity to meet Deng Xiaoping – a small, intense man, the principal architect of China’s phenomenal economic growth and prosperity.

The Philippine team played friendly matches against several Chinese teams, with China reciprocating the gesture by sending a basketball team to the Philippines a few months later. In June 1975, the Philippines and China established formal diplomatic relations.

I went back in 1983 with a delegation of local officials headed by then-Ilocos Norte governor Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. We were both amazed at the dramatic changes taking place mainly due to the drastic reforms initiated by Deng Xiaoping, opening China to foreign investments, utilizing science and technology to modernize industries and opening up information to and from the rest of the world.

I visited China several times after that, including a trip in 2011 as part of the business delegation of the late President Noynoy Aquino. There was absolutely no question that diplomatic and economic relations were on an upward trajectory – until the Scarborough Shoal standoff took place in 2012, with the Chinese eventually taking control of the area, preventing Filipino fishermen from entering what had been a traditional fishing ground of our fisherfolk over the decades. Almost immediately, our relationship started to go south, with the Philippines eventually filing a case before the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague in 2013 to challenge China’s expansive and unlawful claims over the South China Sea. Sadly, we seemed to be all alone because most countries remained deafeningly silent. Worse, some countries openly did not support us.

“The recent FIBA basketball game between the Philippines and China perfectly represents the collective strong sentiment of Filipinos who cheered in jubilation at the defeat of the Chinese team, with so many shedding tears of joy. Undoubtedly, our players were very motivated and determined to beat China.”

While there was a lot of skepticism regarding the filing of the suit, the Philippines continued undeterred, obtaining a favorable ruling in July 2016 with an arbitral panel invalidating China’s claims as having no legal basis.

Although China continues to defy the landmark ruling, this has all the more strengthened the Philippines’ position in many ways, especially with more nations now supporting the PCA decision as legally binding, among them the US, Canada, Australia, the UK, Japan, Belgium, Czechia, Denmark, Germany, Ireland, Greece, Spain, France, Italy, Netherlands, Poland, Austria, Romania, Slovakia, Finland, Sweden – recognizing the decision and its contribution towards a peaceful resolution of the maritime disputes.

India has called for adherence to the ruling. At the same time, other claimant nations like Indonesia, Vietnam, and Malaysia cited the arbitral decision in their submissions before the United Nations to contest China’s excessive territorial claims over the South China Sea.

China’s continued aggression and bully tactics are very ironic, considering the speech delivered by Deng Xiaoping before the Special Session of the UN General Assembly in April 1974, where he urged nations to observe the “…Five Principles of mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence.”

In the same speech, Deng also issued this warning: “If one day China should change her color and turn into a superpower, if she too should play the tyrant in the world, and everywhere subject others to her bullying, aggression and exploitation, the people of the world should identify her as social-imperialism, expose it, oppose it and work together with the Chinese people to overthrow it.”

The laser-pointing incident, the water cannon attack, and other acts of aggression and bullying by China in the West Philippine Sea have elicited an outcry from the international community, with a big majority of Filipinos now seeing China as the “biggest threat” to the Philippines, according to the latest survey.

The recent FIBA basketball game between the Philippines and China perfectly represents the collective strong sentiment of Filipinos who cheered in jubilation at the defeat of the Chinese team, with so many shedding tears of joy. Undoubtedly, our players were very motivated and determined to beat China. Deep inside, they knew it was more than just a basketball game – our national pride was at stake.

True enough, social media exploded with “Amin Ang West Philippine Sea” (The West Philippine Sea Is Ours) posts and hashtags, demonstrating how deeply emotional the issue of Chinese aggression in the West Philippine Sea has become. For many, the FIBA win validated the 2016 arbitral award by the PCA.

Let this kind of “public opinion” send a strong message to the Chinese leadership that we Filipinos are in solidarity regarding our territorial integrity and sovereignty – the two main guiding principles of our country’s national security policy.

Email: babeseyeview@gmail.com

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