SONA vs UN speech: Which is our foreign policy?

/ 04:02 AM September 28, 2020

On Sept. 23, 2020, President Duterte, in his speech before the UN General Assembly, affirmed the ruling of The Hague arbitral tribunal invalidating the Chinese nine-dash line claim to the West Philippine Sea (WPS), and declared that “We firmly reject attempts to undermine it.”

Unfortunately, his statement in his earlier State of the Nation Address (Sona), and the actions that followed, undermined the ruling of The Hague arbitral tribunal, to wit:


1) It abandoned territory we gained under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) ;

2) Compromised our national security in two instances; and


3) Abandoned “freedom of navigation” as our national policy.

The compromise of just one of the three principles cited above is a failure of foreign policy. The loss of all three in a short span of time is an unmitigated disaster. A government responsible for such a debacle would have been thrown out of office in most countries.

Loss of territory is the worst debacle for any country in modern times; it means loss of resources like oil and gas, which could be present in the territory we had abandoned. It also compromises national security. A vast area allows a country to have a defense in depth in case of war.

An added compromise of national security was the refusal of Mr. Duterte to terminate the participation of the China Communications Construction Co. (CCCC) in the construction of the proposed airport in Sangley Point. The CCCC is one of the companies involved in the construction of the artificial islands in the WPS. The Philippine Navy has stated that control of Sangley Point is vital to our national security.

Finally, Mr. Duterte capped the debacle when he refused to participate in the “freedom of navigation” operations of Australia and the United States in the WPS. The President’s alibi was that he did not want the Philippines involved in a war that could result from this naval exercise. This is a lame alibi. China is already waging a de facto war against us since it has imposed a blockade on Ayungin and Panatag shoals. Under international law, a blockade is an act of war.

Freedom of navigation is of utmost importance to an island nation like the Philippines; we benefit from having a 360-degree access to the sea. Curtailment of freedom of navigation in the WPS will limit our access to the open seas only via the Pacific Ocean. That is the equivalent of a bully closing the front door of your house so that your only access is via your back door.

In this regard, the freedom of navigation exercise in the WPS led by the United States and other countries was made to challenge the Chinese claim to almost the entire WPS. Under international law, if China’s claim is not challenged, it could be interpreted as acquiescence to Beijing’s intrusion. Thus, if we have an independent foreign policy, we must initiate, on our own, freedom of navigation trips in the WPS.


However, we announced instead that our ships would limit their operations to the 12-mile limit of our territorial waters. This announcement will be interpreted by the other claimants to the WPS as abandoning our sovereign rights to the areas granted us under Unclos. They can send their exploration rigs to the areas we have abandoned. How can we enforce our sovereign rights in the WPS if our Navy can operate only 12 miles from shore?

Thus, we have two contradictory foreign policies, the Sona versus the UN speech. However, the Sona features are what is being implemented. Mr. Duterte can reverse course by petitioning the UN to ask China to lift the blockade on Ayungin and Panatag shoals. Unless he does this, his UN speech is idle talk. These two blockades undermine the ruling of The Hague arbitral tribunal. Moreover, since China is the beneficiary of all three concessions cited above, our permanent national interest seems to be “Please China at all costs.” It will remain as such, unless the President reverses course and take positive steps to enforce the decision of The Hague arbitral tribunal.

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Hermenegildo C. Cruz is a career diplomat who served as ambassador to the United Nations, the Soviet Union, Bolivia, and Chile. He holds a graduate degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Boston, Massachusetts, USA.

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TAGS: Commentary, foreign policy, Hermenegildo C. Cruz, Maritime Dispute, PH-China relations, Rodrigo Duterte, South China Sea, UN General Assembly, West Philippine Sea
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