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Editorial

Beyond the tit for tat

/ 04:06 AM April 13, 2021

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana had an uncharacteristically blunt message for China after it peremptorily dismissed the Philippines’ protest against the massing of some 200 Chinese vessels in Julian Felipe Reef, well within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ): “I am no fool. The weather has been good so far, they have no reason to stay there. These vessels should be on their way out. Umalis na kayo dyan.’’

The strong statement obviously hit its mark, because the Chinese Embassy in the Philippines practically lost it and responded rudely, characterizing Lorenzana’s words as “wanton remarks” and telling him to “avoid any unprofessional remarks which may further fan irrational emotions.’’ The Department of Foreign Affairs backed Lorenzana by castigating the Chinese Embassy for its “attempt to impugn’’ the defense chief and peddle the lie that China owns the reefs within the Philippine EEZ. “Chinese Embassy officials are reminded that they are guests of the Philippine government, and as guests must at all times observe protocol and accord respect to Philippine government officials,’’ the DFA said.

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Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. also vowed to file a diplomatic protest for “every day of delay’’ in the removal of the Chinese vessels. Lorenzana and Locsin’s categorical pushback against the latest Chinese encroachment has been applauded by various sectors as a welcome display of spine—a departure for once from the Duterte administration’s pronounced policy of deference to China.

But as some senators have also noted, mere diplomatic protests are inadequate as China continues to blithely ignore the Philippines’ demands. Beyond the tit for tat among officials of the two countries, what can the Philippines do to assert its rights, which were upheld by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in a landmark ruling that nullified China’s sweeping claims to the South China Sea (SCS)?

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Unequivocal statements of support coming from many countries boost the Philippines’ position. On March 29, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken declared that “The United States stands with our ally, the Philippines, in the face of the PRC’s (People’s Republic of China) maritime militia amassing at Whitsun Reef (Juan Felipe Reef). We will always stand by our allies and stand up for the rules-based international order.’’ US State Department spokesperson Ned Price followed that up on April 7 with an emphatic warning: “An armed attack against the Philippines’ armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft in the Pacific, including in the South China Sea, will trigger our obligations under the US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty.’’

Japan, Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the European Union have also issued strong expressions of concern against China’s actions, all asserting the need to be “governed by international rules and norms, particularly Unclos,” as Australian Ambassador to the Philippines Steven J. Robinson pointed out in his statement. Southeast Asian neighbors such as Malaysia, Indonesia, and Vietnam have likewise invoked the Philippines’ historic arbitral win as now a cornerstone of international law to fortify their own formal protests against China’s territorial overreach. What all these underscore is that, in this row, with the Philippines possessing a pivotal legal ruling recognized by the world at large, China is in fact the outlaw—a country that disregards the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea of which it is a signatory, that waves about its nine-dash-line fiction in the face of universal rejection of that claim, and that shows manifest bad faith toward the Association of Southeast Asian Nations with which it has been engaged in years-long dialogue for a code of conduct in the SCS.

The broad coalition of countries backing the Philippines and the arbitral award gives the Philippines the moral and legal high ground to insist on its rights against China. But before that international consensus can be harnessed, it is imperative that such a policy of working with other countries to insist on a rules-based order in the SCS, and on the Philippines’ territorial integrity in the WPS in particular, is enunciated in clear, unmistakable, and unwavering language not just by Lorenzana and Locsin, but by President Duterte himself.

Unfortunately, despite the two officials’ admirable show of defiance against Beijing, and despite the many local and international voices that have amplified their call, their principal—who has floridly vowed to travel to China to personally thank Chinese leader Xi Jinping for donated COVID-19 vaccines to the Philippines, among other such expressions of presidential affection toward that country—has yet to utter a word of support for his defense and foreign chiefs’ position, much less any hint of displeasure at Beijing’s continuing disparagement of and disregard for the Philippines’ demands. As they say: There’s the rub.

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TAGS: Delfin Lorenzana, Editorial, Julian Felipe Reef, Maritime Dispute, West Philippine Sea
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