Finally, four years after an international tribunal in The Hague struck down China’s expansive claims over the South China Sea and handed the Philippines a historic victory, which the Duterte administration then promptly mothballed to pursue better relations with Beijing, the Philippines appears to be ready to show some spine and resolve on the issue.
“The award is non-negotiable,” declared Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. on the occasion of the fourth anniversary of the decision, handed down on July 12, 2016. Based on the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), The Hague “authoritatively ruled that China’s claim of historic rights to resources within the sea … had no basis in law,” pointed out Locsin, adding: “The Philippines, as a law-abiding, peace-loving, and responsible member of the international community, reaffirms on this occasion its adherence to the award and its enforcement without any possibility of compromise or change.”
Fighting words, and long overdue. China has refused to accept the ruling, describing it as a “sham,” and has gone on to appropriate resource-rich reefs, shoals, and islands in the West Philippine Sea that are well within the Philippines’ 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone as defined by Unclos, which, incidentally, also counts China as a member. And for all the expressions of friendship and appreciation Beijing has lavished on the Duterte administration for its deferential stance toward China, it was quick to slap down Locsin’s bold declaration with a curt riposte: “China’s position is consistent, clear, and firm,” the Chinese Embassy in Manila said. “The South China Sea arbitration and its so-called award are illegal and invalid. China does not accept or participate in the arbitration, nor does it accept or recognize the so-called award.”
Although Locsin has since dialed down his tone and issued a conciliatory statement vowing “to promote maritime cooperation in friendly consultation” with his Chinese counterpart, his resolute statement in fact reflects the larger national mood. According to a Social Weather Stations survey released last July 14, 70 percent of Filipinos agree “that the Philippines should assert its territorial rights in the West Philippine Sea,” and 82 percent say the country should “form alliances with other democratic countries that are ready to help defend its territorial rights in the West Philippine Sea.”
The Philippines’ resurrection of The Hague ruling aligns with the growing realization as well within the region that resisting the growing aggressiveness of a nascent hegemon needs solidarity among neighbors, and that The Hague ruling represents a compelling, internationally credible starting point. Members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) have hoisted the tribunal ruling against China as added munition to their own pushback. In January this year, Indonesia cited the arbitral award in its diplomatic protest against China, saying its so-called “nine-dash line” claim in the South China Sea was never recognized by the Unclos—a position likewise asserted by Vietnam. In its virtual summit in June, Asean leaders “reaffirmed” that the 1982 Unclos “should be the basis for determining maritime entitlements, sovereign rights, jurisdiction and legitimate interests over maritime zones,” the strongest position taken by the 10-bloc association so far on the issue.
The Hague ruling’s fourth anniversary appears to have nudged another major player into firmer, more categorical footing. Marking its most pointed statement on the dispute yet, the United States said that it was aligning its position on China’s maritime claims with the 2016 ruling. “We stand with the international community in defense of freedom of the seas and respect for sovereignty and reject any push to impose ‘might makes right’ in the South China Sea or the wider region,” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement.
And US East Asia and Pacific Affairs Assistant Secretary David Stillwell zeroed in on what has been a chafing bone of contention between the Philippines and China: “In Scarborough specifically, we have made equally clear our opposition to any efforts by (the People’s Republic of China) to block access to Filipino fishermen and any move by Beijing to physically occupy, conduct reclamation at, or militarize Scarborough.”
The assertive tone newly summoned by Malacañang against China, and deployed as well by Asean and the United States, is a welcome indication of a consensus that Beijing’s wanton actions of militarism and expansion in the world’s most critical waterway, if left unchecked, are posing a grave risk to peace and stability in the region. China’s rejection of The Hague decision and a rules-based order makes it all too clear that the only “illegal and invalid” thing here is its baseless, fictitious, preposterous “nine-dash line.”
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