China’s foot-dragging on the COC
In the last few days, we have heard bolder pronouncements from the Duterte administration on China, something we didn’t hear for some time after the President’s pivot to Beijing and after he officially declared that the 2016 arbitral ruling favoring our claims to islands in the South China Sea would have to be shelved momentarily.
Never mind the threat of Mr. Duterte early this month that he will dispatch a suicide mission to Pag-asa Island to drive away hundreds of Chinese vessels spotted in the area. That was obviously a joke to cheer up the crowd at a campaign sortie in Puerto Princesa, Palawan.
What is noteworthy are the series of anti-China press statements made by Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr., where he publicly castigated China for its continued intrusions into our territorial waters. Locsin said that the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) would take legal action against China for illegally harvesting endangered giant clams and destroying corals in Panatag or Scarborough Shoal, which Chinese forces seized in 2012. He said China would be sued “for causing serious environmental damage to the shoal.”
Locsin, a lawyer and former lawmaker, also claimed he had filed diplomatic protests for every Chinese intrusion into our sovereign waters as reported by the West Philippine Sea task force. In these protests, he added, the DFA always invoked the 2016 arbitral ruling.
Did President Duterte approve the moves Locsin has taken? If so, has the President finally jettisoned his earlier pledge to put the arbitral ruling in the back burner so as not to displease China?
The Philippines is caught between a rock and a hard place. China has completely ignored the ruling and has insisted that the whole of the South China Sea has been theirs since ancient times. This view has been restated in the official response to Mr. Duterte’s “suicide mission” statement; China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Lu Kang said that for thousands of years, Chinese fishermen have been fishing in these waters and “this right should not be challenged” by any country.
Beijing insists it is not bound by the arbitral decision despite the fact that China is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which mandated the creation of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.
Given China’s refusal to participate, even the legal action that the DFA intends to file against China would suffer the same fate as that of the arbitral court: Beijing would just ignore it.
Some well-meaning sectors have said that the Philippines should go to the United Nations to force China to abide by the decision of the arbitral court. But China is a permanent member of the UN Security Council, and it will just veto any resolution on the maritime row.
While China continues to assure all claimants to parts of the Spratlys that it is willing to negotiate, it has nevertheless stymied efforts to resolve the dispute by foot-dragging and delaying actions, as in the case of the code of conduct (COC) in the South China Sea that would serve as rule book to peacefully resolve the overlapping claims of countries in the area.
Since four of the claimant countries—the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei Darussalam—are members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, it was the Asean and China, a partner country of the grouping, that drew up the COC. But since 2002, when China first agreed to the creation of the COC, nothing has been finalized.
In November last year, during the Asean Summit in Singapore, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang announced that the COC will be finished in three years, or in 2021. But Li did not explain why it would take another three years to approve the COC. Given Beijing’s foot-dragging on that document for the past 17 years, it’s doubtful whether the much-awaited code could finally be signed by 2021.
Alito L. Malinao is former news editor of the Manila Standard. He is on leave as journalism professor at the Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila and is the author of the book “Journalism for Filipinos.”
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