The 2016 UN Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling upholding the Philippines' legal claims in the West Philippine Sea is unenforceable, presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said Tuesday.
Roque made the response a day after President Rodrigo Duterte said that his going to the West Philippine Sea to assert the Philippines' claims was useless, that such an undertaking could only be done by force, and such an action would only be triggered if China started drilling for oil.
“It's not a policy [not to enforce the 2016 Hague ruling]. It is reality in international law. Our dilemma is that we do not have an international police or sheriff,” Roque said in a Palace briefing.
In a July 2016 ruling, the Hague-based UN Court rejected China's claim of sovereignty over the entire South China Sea, which invalidated Beijing’s massive nine-dash line claims over the waterway and upheld Manila’s exclusive economic zone in the West Philippine Sea.
Meanwhile, Duterte lashed out at critics who wanted him to confront China over the continued presence of Chinese warships at the Julian Felipe Reef, located within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone about 175 nautical miles west of Bataraza, Palawan.
“If we go there, really to find out and to assert jurisdiction, it would be bloody. It would result in violence that maybe we cannot win,” he said.
“The issue of the West Philippine Sea remains a question forever until such time that we can take it back. For me, it would only start war,” Duterte added.
However, former Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario on Tuesday urged the President to abandon China’s “narrative of war” should the Philippines insist on the enforcement of the 2016 Arbitral Award rendered by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA).
Del Rosario, who was one of those who initiated the complaint against China before the PCA, was referring to the 2017 warning issued by Chinese President Xi Jinping against Duterte that “there would be war if the Philippines ‘forces the issue’ of the Arbitral Ruling in the West Philippine Sea.”
“We respectfully urge the President to reject this Chinese narrative of war, because it is intended to scare countries to submit to China’s will of illegally occupying the South China Sea,” the country’s former top diplomat stressed. With AFP
Nonetheless, Del Rosario, who is chair of policy think tank Stratbase ADR Institute, emphasized that “neither war nor bloodshed is an option for the Philippines to assert its rights over the West Philippine Sea.”
In fact, Del Rosario noted that in the past few days, the Philippines was able to pressure China to disperse its vessels in Julian Felipe (Whitsun) Reef, “not through war or bloodshed, but through the courageous assertion of our rights by our officials and soldiers.”
“However, it remains a challenge for us to address the presence of 240 Chinese ships located in various reefs in the West Philippine Sea, as reported by the WPS National Task Force as of April 11, 2021,” he said.
Noting that President Duterte has already invoked the Arbitral Ruling that the Philippines won in The Hague at the 75th United Nations General Assembly and the 37th ASEAN Summit last year, Del Rosario said: “We do not see a war being waged by China against us. This should have put to rest the utterly inane notion that invoking the Arbitral Ruling and standing up for our rights are equivalent to waging war against China.”
Duterte had recalled a conversation with Xi in 2017, where he said Xi himself vowed that China would not extract oil from the disputed sea.
“I said that a long time ago, after I spoke with President Xi Jinping, I said I will get my oil also. He said, ‘Please don’t, we just leave it that way in the meantime’,” he added.
Duterte had warned he would send warships to “stake a claim” in the disputed West Philippine Sea if China should start drilling for oil and taking other resources from the area.
Duterte issued the statement after being criticized for keeping silent on the continued presence of Chinese vessels in the area near Palawan, saying he will send gray ships to the West Philippine Sea should China start drilling for oil in the disputed territory.
“When we start to mine, when we start to get whatever it is that is in the bowels of the China Sea, regarding our own oil, I am there, but by that time, I will send my ships there,” Duterte said.
“I will send my grace ships to state a claim. ‘That’s it. Should they mine oil, nickel and precious stones, that would be the time we should act on it,” the President added.
“I am addressing myself to the Chinese government, we want to remain friends, we want to share whatever it is. I told you Chinese government, I’m not so much interested now in fishing. I don’t think there’s enough fish really to quarrel about. But when we start to mine, when we start to get whatever is in the bowels of the China sea in our oil, that’s when I will act,” Duterte said.
He said should China start drilling for oil, the Philippines would also start doing the same.
“If they start drilling for oil there, I’ll tell China, ‘Is that part of our agreement? Because if it is not part of our agreement, I’m going to also drill my oil there. If you own it, I own it,” he said.
The same Hague court decision – which stemmed from a case filed by the Aquino administration against China in 2013 – also ruled that the Spratly Islands, Panganiban (Mischief) Reef, Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal, and Recto (Reed) Bank are within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone.
Before the UN Court issued the ruling, then-presidential candidate and Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte said he would ride a jet ski and plant a Philippine flag on one of the West Philippine Sea islands, even at the risk of provoking China's ire.
Reminded of this declaration on Tuesday, Roque said it was a figure of speech.
"That [campaign promise] was a metaphor, but I think he has reiterated that when he said there are limits to our friendship [with China]," Roque said.
Roque argued that while the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) could compel China to recognize and comply with the Hague ruling, this was unlikely given that China was a permanent member of the UNSC and thus had veto power over any UNSC resolution.
Roque said: “The enforcement mechanism is solely based on [the assumption that] no country [will be] wanting to admit they're in breach of obligations under international law. The enforcement can be done with UNSC intervention, but with China being a permanent member of UNSC, it has the power to veto any action against them.”
But he pointed out that the non-enforcement of the Hague ruling did not forfeit Philippine sovereignty.
Duterte, in the same speech admitted that he was not inclined to assert the country’s jurisdiction in the area for now.
This was the first time Duterte talked on the West Philippine issue since Chinese militia vessels surrounded the Julian Felipe Reef, which is part of the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.
The latest rift in the West Philippine Sea started last March 21 when the Philippine Coast Guard reported more than 200 ships were spotted in line formation near Julian Felipe Reef, which is part of the Philippine continental shelf.
Duterte, who has embraced China since taking power in 2016, has faced growing domestic criticism for his reluctance to confront Beijing over its activities in Philippine-claimed waters.
Tensions spiked last month after hundreds of Chinese vessels were detected at Whitsun Reef in the Spratly Islands, which are contested by several countries, including the Philippines and China.
Beijing has refused repeated demands by the Philippines to call back the ships, which Manila says are maritime militia vessels and China says are fishing boats.
Duterte spoke the day after top military leadership rejected a rumor that a social media group involving members of the armed forces had demanded the president denounce China or they would no longer support him as their commander in chief.
Beijing asserts sovereignty over almost all of the waterway, which is believed to hold rich deposits of natural resources.
Renewed tension in the region has alarmed several countries.
The United States, a key military ally of the Philippines and its former colonial ruler, recently reminded China of its treaty obligations to Manila.
The dispute comes as the Philippines receives millions of doses of COVID-19 jabs from China's Sinovac -- many of them donated.
The jabs have underpinned the country's inoculation efforts as it waits for the delivery of vaccines from Russia and the West.
Duterte meanwhile said he was ready to step down if he should lose military support, describing a Revolutionary government as ‘baloney”.
During his late night Monday public address, Duterte said he would return to his home city of Davao and let the military explain the reason behind his removal from office.
“If the Air Force head, the Navy, Army, including the Police, all stand up now, I will leave as mayor. (sic) I’ll go home I mean….I do not have the support of the military and so --- that’ just simple,” he said.
He recalled a recent meeting with military officials where he offered to resign if the officers demanded it.
Duterte said he knows some military officials who will retire and I just told them what they want.
“For me, I am ready.… If just a matter of going there and looking for trouble and maybe violence, that’s okay to me. But I said, at what cost would that be to the country?” he said.
In a related development, Senator Panfilo Lacson said Duterte could not afford to send the wrong message – especially implied surrender or resignation -- on the country's territorial disputes with China in the West Philippine Sea.
Lacson said this after President Rodrigo Duterte said Monday night that the Philippines might risk bloodshed and a no-win situation if it asserted its jurisdiction.
"He’s the leader of our country and he’s the commander-in-chief of our armed forces. He can think of anything and speak about anything except surrender. Remember, we have an arbitral ruling in our favor and it’s permanent although it’s unenforceable. There are so many things to think about except surrender. We cannot wave the white flag, so to speak," Lacson said in an interview on CNN Philippines.
"I am not saying the President is actually raising the white flag but that’s the implication. If the officers and men of the AFP would take it that way, it could be disastrous to Philippine sovereignty," he added.
Lacson noted no less than Secretaries Delfin Lorenzana (Defense) and Teodoro Locsin Jr. (Foreign Affairs) have said we could build strong alliances with other countries.
He reiterated the Philippines could build stronger alliances with other countries such as Japan, which he said is a natural ally because it has a territorial issue with China.
Also, he said, the US and Japan have already expressed their willingness to build much stronger alliances with the Philippines. He added the Philippines can conduct joint military exercises with other countries like the US and even Australia.
Sen. Risa Hontiveros said Duterte might see no other option other than letting China take control of our waters, but the Filipino people are not ready to give up.
"My colleagues in the Senate, military officers, business groups, fisherfolk, civil society organizations, and numerous individuals have strongly condemned China’s aggression in the WPS," she said.
Meanwhile, Duterte slammed retired Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonio Carpio for politicizing the West Philippines Sea dispute with China, telling Carpio not to join the politics because the latter’s group got zero seats in the last elections.
“This Carpio, you just --- don’t join the politics, you don’t know anything about politics, you don’t know anything and you’re like crazy,” the Chief Executive said in his public address Monday night.
Duterte told Carpio, who has been staunchly defending the Philippines’ rights over the West Philippine Sea (WPS), that China “will just give you a finger” should he insist to reclaim the WPS.
“Do you think that if the United Nations will ask China to surrender because of that award given to us, will China give it?” Duterte asked Carpio.
According to Duterte, Carpio would not be able to use the Philippines’ victory against China at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Netherlands in 2016 — which invalidated China’s nine-dash line claim — as the Asian superpower would simply set it aside.
Elsewhere, the United States is waiting for the Philippines' call for help to push back against Chinese incursion of its territorial waters, an envoy of Manila said on Tuesday.
The Pentagon is communicating with the Philippine military and recently deployed aircraft carrier strike group led by the USS
Theodore Roosevelt to the South China Sea, said Philippine Ambassador to the US Jose Manuel Romualdez.
The West Philippine Sea is within the larger South China Sea. Some 240 ships are allegedly massing within the Philippine territorial waters.
"We are working round the clock, so to speak, in terms of being able to navigate or make sure that there’s the freedom of the seas, and code of conduct that we’re pushing," Romualdez said in a press briefing.
"At the same time, the United States is obviously waiting for us to call them if we need their assistance in removing or asking the vessels that are parked in our area of responsibility, our economic zone [to leave]," he added.
Palace spokesman Harry Roque, who facilitated the briefing with Romualdez, said he was "not sure" what the envoy meant.
"I don’t want to put words in his mouth," he said. With AFP