MANILA, Philippines - A planned exhibition match between a PBA selection and a Chinese team owned by NBA star Yao Ming has Manila and Beijing hoping to build up some goodwill after weeks of tension over the Scarborough Shoal.
The Philippine government welcomed the announcement of the upcoming exhibition - brokered by the two countries' respective sports authorities - as "a gesture of goodwill".
The Palace was reacting to news that a selection of PBA stars will welcome the Chinese Basketball Association's Shanghai Sharks, a team co-owned by former NBA superstar Yao Ming, in a friendly game at the newly-built SM Mall of Asia Arena on June 28.
The announcement of the game also came on the heels of a directive by Malacanang to ward off a "protest sail" planned by a former rebel soldier to Scarborough Shoal. China and the Philippines have been locked in standoff in the waters west of the Philippines' Zambales province for weeks after Philippine authorities confronted Chinese vessels plying the area.
Official diplomatic channels have had fits of starts and complications over the past weeks, with conflicting signals on either side of the standoff. China has sent some formidable armed coast guard vessels to Scarborough and has displayed its overwhelming advantage come to military hardware, even as it has insisted that it is not gearing up for battle.
The Philippine side, on the other hand, says that it has no choice but to deal with China on diplomatic levels. But China perceives Manila to be dealing in bad faith on that front, clearly bristling at an international protest and media campaign carried out by Filipino citizens, but which Beijing suggests is in fact backed - at the least tolerated - by Philippine officials.
China has also warned the Philippines and its allies against any attempt to internationalize the standoff. Amidst the Scarborough tensions, Manila has turned to Washington both for long-term plans to upgrade the Philippine military, as well as to get some immediate reasssurance over a mutual defense treaty that some Filipino politicians want to invoke. President Aquino has also portrayed Beijing's behaviour as reason for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to be alarmed, and to take a collective position all other related disputes over the South China Sea.
A nuclear-powered US submarine is in Subic on what is touted as a "routine" visit, further spurring suspicion that Manila was escalating the conflict.
Against all these complexities, news of Yao Ming coming to Manila provided a clear area of comfort for China and the Philippines, two countries that share a common and popular passion for basketball. Coming as it did on the same day that President Aquino personally intervened to call off a private flotilla of fishermen and private citizens that were being organized by a former military rebel to Scarborough Shoal, the development made for a rare day of goodwill between the two countries.
The use of sports to help bridge tensions inevitably recalls China's vaunted "ping-pong diplomacy" with the United States at the start of the 1970s. Back then, at the height of the Cold War between Communist states led by the Soviet Union and China on the one hand, and capitalist democracies led by the US on the other, a surprise initiative for a friendly exchange of Chinese and American table tennis players actually built up to a rare visit by an American president to Beijing.
Whether or not a basketball game can help to heal the growing rift between Manila and Beijing remains to be seen. But basketball no doubt provides a more comfortable common language between Chinese and Filipinos. A football friendly between the two countries has already been scuttled, to very little disapppointment or notice in Manila. Yao Ming's arrival, on the other hand, will arguably be bigger news among basketball-crazy Filipinos, and something that will give them a China reference other than Scarborough, the South China Sea, and China's overwhelming impact - and stick - in the general realm of Philippine economic interests.
The standoff that began on April 8 is seen to have already impacted on tourism, with cancellations of Chinese tourist bookings; agriculture, with Philippine banana exports held up in Chinese piers, among others.
President Benigno Aquino III has said both countries continue to talk and seek a 'win-win' solution. That includes on Thursday suggesting that Manila would be open to joint explorations and exploitation of resources in disputed areas in the South China Sea.