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With Due Respect

Uniting goals and methods in WPS

Our maritime problems arose when China claimed ownership of and sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea (SCS), and seized several isles and rocks therein, like the Paracels in 1974, Fiery Cross Reef in 1987, Johnson South Reef and Subi Reef in 1988, and Mischief Reef in 1995, the last three being within our exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

Being quite far, these activities did not cause much concern to ordinary Filipinos at the time. But the Chinese seizure in 2012 of nearby Scarborough Shoal rang deafening alarm bells in the ears of then President Benigno Aquino III.

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Though Aquino was convinced of our marine entitlements granted by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), he did not have the military assets to protect them. Neither did he want to engage China in bilateral talks, thinking he could not win a one-on-one clash with a military and economic giant.

He was convinced by then Foreign Secretary Albert Del Rosario to resort to arbitration, which we won. Smartly, China, alleging lack of jurisdiction, refused to participate in the arbitral process and to obey the award.

The Aquino officials wanted to enforce the award aggressively. They argued that from past experience, China could not be bent by soft talk. They wanted to use proactive measures short of war, even at the risk of offending China.

Senior Justice Antonio T. Carpio, who actively backstopped the Philippine legal panel, discussed these measures on page 216 of his seminal book, “The South China Sea Dispute: Philippine Sovereign Rights and Jurisdiction in the West Philippine Sea.”

Some of them are: (1) sue China in a state that ratified Unclos to attach Chinese assets that are or may be used in extracting natural resources in the WPS; (2) ask the International Seabed Authority to suspend China’s exploration permits in the WPS; (3) petition the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf to suspend China’s application for an extended continental shelf in the East China Sea; and, (4) actively patrol the WPS, and should China attack our patrol vessels, invoke the PH-US Mutual Defense Treaty.

However, the “award” was issued only on July 12, 2016 when Aquino’s successor, Rodrigo Duterte, was already sworn in. From the very outset, the new President stressed that we must not “taunt [China] or flaunt” our victory. He befriended Chinese President Xi Jinping, opted for diplomacy, and promised to remind China of our legal rights “at the right time and occasion.”

To be fair, this strategy has brought benefits: China allowed Filipinos to fish in Scarborough, desisted from its original plan to construct structures there, and did not assert the 12-nautical-mile territorial sea of Scarborough that overlaps our EEZ. From China’s view, this was a major giveaway because it broke the “nine dash line’s” plan of setting up three bases in the SCS—in the Paracels (done), Spratlys (done) and Scarborough (not done).

Moreover, China promised billions of dollars in grants, loans and investments to help spur our economy. Of course, minute scrutiny of the small print of these offers is a must.

Despite his friendly stance, the President recently used sterner measures, like the “firing” of diplomatic protests against (1) the abandonment at sea of our fishermen after their wooden trawler was rammed by a Chinese vessel near the Recto Bank, (2) the “swarming” of Pag-asa Island by “more than a hundred” Chinese ships, and (3) the unannounced passage of four Chinese military vessels in the Sibuto Strait.

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But the most acclaimed is that, as he promised, he would take up the arbitral award and the code of conduct with the Chinese leader during his visit to China later this month.

In sum, I note our growing unity in the ultimate goal that, as I wrote in this space on July 28, the “WPS is ours… no ifs and buts,” and that lately, the Duterte administration, while pursuing a policy of friendship, is taking firmer actions when needed.

Truly, I am glad that we are united in our goal of protecting the WPS and are getting united also in the methods to achieve this goal. I believe that while we can loudly disagree on domestic policies, we should silently unite as one people in protecting our international interests.

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TAGS: artemio v. panganiban, Maritime Dispute, South China Sea, West Philippine Sea, With Due Respect
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