On July 12 a year ago, the Philippines won a stunning victory on the international front when the case it had brought against China was upheld by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. The ruling invalidated China’s claim to almost all of the South China Sea: The court said China has “no historical rights” on the area via its so-called “nine-dash line,” and recognized the Philippines’ sovereign rights to fish and explore for minerals in waters within its 370-kilometer exclusive economic zone.
“Having found that none of the features claimed by China was capable of generating an exclusive economic zone, the Tribunal found that it could—without delimiting a boundary—declare that certain sea areas are within the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines, because those areas are not overlapped by any possible entitlement of China,” declared the ruling.
Not only that. While the court said it would not “rule on any question of sovereignty over land territory and would not delimit any maritime boundary between the Parties” (China and the Philippines), it unequivocally declared that China had violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights in its exclusive economic zone “by (a) interfering with Philippine fishing and petroleum exploration, (b) constructing artificial islands and (c) failing to prevent Chinese fishermen from fishing in the zone.”
In much of the international community, the ruling was immediately hailed as a milestone document, a way forward to clarify and resolve, via international law, the bitter disputes that have arisen over ownership and fishing rights in the South China Sea (Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei have competing claims to it alongside China and the Philippines). As late as last April, the issue was in the minds of the foreign ministers of the Group of Seven (G7) advanced economies—Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States—when it issued a statement backing the ruling, saying it could be “a useful basis for further efforts to peacefully resolve disputes in the South China Sea.” G7 added that it strongly opposed “any unilateral actions which increase tensions, such as the threat or use of force, large-scale land reclamation, building of outposts, as well as their use for military purposes and urge all parties to pursue demilitarization of disputed features and to comply with their obligations under international law.”
That reminder was deemed necessary, because China had not only rejected the tribunal’s ruling despite being a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, under which the arbitration case was heard; it also defied world opinion by upping the ante, constructing military facilities on three islands in the disputed region that have now allowed it to potentially deploy military forces and exercise an effective lockdown over the vital waters.
While other claimant countries have continued to protest Beijing’s muscle-flexing, the Philippines, the main beneficiary of the tribunal’s ruling, has instead chosen rapprochement with China by, first of all, “setting aside” the historic decision. That was how President Duterte worded his rebooted foreign policy, under which the Philippines would be silent for now on its legal claim, in exchange for billions of dollars in loans and financial commitments from its giant economic neighbor. The President sees it as a pragmatic arrangement: The Philippines is in no shape to fight China militarily, and so must assume a less provocative, more suppliant position.
Meanwhile, China’s encroachment and increasing control over the West Philippine Sea continues.
Only time will tell if the Duterte administration’s strategy over this invaluable piece of national patrimony is correct, or if in fact, as Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio said, it “dropped the ball.”
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