The second paragraph of the second section of Article XII of the Constitution is an explicit order: “The State shall protect the nation’s marine wealth in its archipelagic waters, territorial sea, and exclusive economic zone, and reserve its use and enjoyment exclusively to Filipino citizens.” The power to reserve exclusivity is patrimonial in nature; it is based on the state’s responsibility to “conserve and develop our patrimony.” But this power is itself based on a more basic responsibility: that of the military, acting on behalf of the people, “to secure the sovereignty of the State and the integrity of the national territory.”
The landmark decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague on the suit lodged by the Philippines against China was a sweeping victory for the Philippines. Among other findings, it held, without pronouncing on the question of sovereignty over Scarborough or Panatag Shoal, that China had violated the Philippines’ rights and freedoms within its exclusive economic zone, by preventing Filipino fishermen from fishing in or around the shoal. The arbitral court held that both China and the Philippines enjoy “traditional fishing rights” in the area which were not extinguished when the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea took effect.
On Oct. 10, just about three months after the arbitral court released its decision, President Duterte said something which effectively threw this hard-earned victory out the window. Addressing residents of Lamitan, Basilan, the Commander in Chief touched on the country’s relations with China.
“I have a good feeling that we will be OK with them. But first let’s not touch the Scarborough Shoal issue because we cannot win that,” he said. “Even if we get angry, we’ll just be putting on airs. We can’t beat [China]. We’ll ask them to allow our fishermen to [return] to their traditional fishing ground in Scarborough.”
In truth, this is not new. Mr. Duterte has said before that he will ask Beijing to allow Filipino fishermen to return to Scarborough. If this return takes place, it will mark the first time that the fishermen from Zambales and other nearby provinces will be able to fish in the area since 2012. This is a victory, too, and for the fishermen it could not have come any sooner.
But what made the President’s latest remarks controversial were the assumptions he brought to the subject. First, a touchy-feely approach to foreign relations (“good feeling,” “OK”) that seems to prize cordial relations with an emerging superpower over national interest. Second, a defeatist attitude that misrepresents popular sentiment on the South China Sea issue. It is true that, if a military confrontation took place in Scarborough, “we cannot win that.” But popular opinion in the Philippines recognizes that “touching the Scarborough issue” is not in fact limited to the military option alone. As a small player in the regional scene, we must work with our allies, we must exhaust the diplomatic possibilities, we must seek redress from international courts, to fight the bullying. Indeed, that explains the public demonstrations that spontaneously greeted the sweeping legal victory of July 12. The President does not reflect the popular will on the issue, if he fails to “touch” the Scarborough case.
Third, the political leader who has spent his entire career on bravura expressions of crime-fighting and corruption-fighting suggests that “getting angry” is mere theater, because we do not have the resources to match those of China. This is an argument that must be debunked; it is not true that if we get angry with China because it has bullied us, we are only putting on airs.
The arbitral decision is itself proof that even the small and the bullied can put up a fight.
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