Strongest – but unused – weapon
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana raised eyebrows this week when he disclosed that the Philippines would not join the navies of other countries such as the United States and Australia in maritime drills in the South China Sea, for fear of further escalating tensions in the disputed waters.
“President Rodrigo Duterte has a standing order to us, to me, that we should not involve ourselves in naval exercises in the South China Sea except our national waters, the 12-mile distance from our shores,” Lorenzana said. “We cannot exercise with them in the South China Sea.”
This break from the tradition of joining allied nations in capability-enhancing military exercises should no longer come as a surprise, however, consistent as it is with this administration’s deferential attitude toward China. Indeed, China’s encroachments will likely only escalate, enabled by the encouragement Mr. Duterte had signaled when he said — during his fifth State of the Nation Address no less — that he was “inutile” and “cannot do anything” to counter China’s aggression in the South China Sea: “[China is] in possession. So what can we do? We have to go to war and I can’t afford it. Maybe some other President can, but I cannot. I’m inutile on that matter, I tell you. And I’m willing to admit it. I cannot do anything.’’
But that defending the country’s territory only means going to war against China is a patently false picture. As former Supreme Court senior associate justice Antonio Carpio has consistently said, there are other ways, legal and peaceful, by which the President can assert the country’s rights over its own territory, the same way neighboring countries such as Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia, which also have competing claims against China, have proudly done. That is, of course, if Mr. Duterte actually wants to.
“A country does not need to go to war to assert its sovereign rights,” said Carpio. He also cautioned Mr. Duterte against declaring that China already has “possession” of territories claimed by the Philippines, as it certainly does not. More than being baseless, that assertion poses adverse implications for the country’s national security and territorial integrity.
As Carpio and many others have pointed out, the Philippines has the strongest diplomatic weapon available against China — the hard-fought arbitral ruling awarded in July 2016 by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague that invalidated China’s sweeping claim over nearly the entire South China Sea and upheld the Philippines’ exclusive rights in the West Philippine Sea. But Mr. Duterte has refused to wield that award in any significant way, preferring to cozy up to Beijing instead.
Other countries have taken it upon themselves to cite the landmark ruling to stand up against Chinese actions and ensure freedom of navigation in the vital sea lane.
In a July 13 statement, US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, for example, said the United States was aligning its position with the tribunal’s unanimous decision which “sided squarely with the Philippines,” and that “We are making clear: Beijing’s claims to offshore resources across most of the South China Sea are completely unlawful, as is its campaign of bullying to control them.”
Australia followed with its own forceful stand, stating in a July 23 note verbale submitted to the United Nations that the Australian government “rejects any claims by China that are inconsistent with the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, in particular, maritime claims that do not adhere to its rules on baselines, maritime zones and classification of features… The Tribunal in the 2016 South China Sea Arbitral Award found these claims to be inconsistent with Unclos and, to the extent of that inconsistency, invalid.”
Indonesia also cited the Philippines’ arbitral award in its diplomatic protest against China for poaching and trespassing near the Natuna Islands. And, in a show of defiance at Beijing, not only did Indonesian President Joko Widodo visit the islands, he also declared: “There is no compromise when it comes to our nation’s territorial sovereignty. Natuna is part of Indonesia’s territory, there is no question, no doubt.”
Then there’s Brunei, long a quiet claimant, which recently broke its silence and put itself foursquare behind a process of “peaceful dialogue and consultations” that “should be resolved in accordance with the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and the rules and principles of international law.”
These countries think the Philippines’ award is not an inutile, useless position, but in fact an indispensable marker for containing China’s expansionism and resolving territorial disputes in the area according to an internationally recognized rules-based order. Alas, the government of the very country that won it does not seem to share the enthusiasm for it.