President Rodrigo Duterte, appearing tough on the international arbitral ruling against China in 2016, told his fellow Southeast Asian leaders Thursday the determination by the Hague court as regards the disputed South China sea “cannot be diminished nor ignored.”
The ruling, which invoked the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, “is now part of international law,” Duterte said via video conference in the 37th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit.
ASEAN is a regional grouping that promotes economic, political, and security cooperation among its 10 members: Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.
Duterte, whose six-year term ends on June 30, 2022, said: “Its significance cannot be diminished nor ignored by any country, however big and powerful.”
Beijing claims about 80 percent of the sea, including parts of the exclusive economic zones of the Philippines and fellow ASEAN members Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam. Taiwan also has partial claims.
The 75-year-old Duterte told fellow ASEAN leaders: “We must, therefore, remain united. We must show that we are masters of our region’s destiny and that we can work together to achieve shared aspirations and solve common problems.”
“As I have said before, the South China Sea issue is ASEAN’s strategic challenge. How we deal with this matter lays bare our strengths and weaknesses as a community. We must act with haste,” he added.
Duterte added: The Philippines is “committed to the immediate conclusion of a substantive and effective Code of Conduct in the South China Sea,” which “has been a long time and it is a long wait.
“The Philippine position is clear and firm. We must solve the disputes peacefully and in accordance with international law, including UNCLOS.”
He was referring to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea which is an international treaty adopted and signed in 1982.
Last September, in an unprecedented move to assert the country’s position on the South China Sea, Duterte raised the 2016 arbitral award that rejected Beijing’s excessive nine-dash-line claim before the United Nations General Assembly.
In his taped message for the UNGA, Duterte took a swipe at China for refusing to recognize the decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration.
“The Philippines affirms that commitment in the South China Sea in accordance with UNCLOS and the 2016 Arbitral Award. The Award is now part of international law, beyond compromise and beyond the reach of passing governments to dilute, diminish or abandon. We firmly reject attempts to undermine it,” the President said.
“We welcome the increasing number of states that have come in support of the award and what it stands for—the triumph of reason over rashness, of law over disorder, of amity over ambition. This—as it should—is the majesty of the law,” Duterte added.
It was a complete turnaround from the earlier pronouncement of his spokesman, Harry Roque, who said bringing up the sea row before the UNGA was unrealistic and tantamount to black propaganda.
France, Germany and the United Kingdom earlier submitted a note verbale to the UN to assert the arbitral ruling, calling on all claimants to resolve their disputes peacefully.
Duterte also called the attention of UN member-states on rising geopolitical tensions amid the pandemic.
“Escalating tensions benefit no one. New flash points heighten fears and tend to tear peoples apart. When elephants fight, it is the grass that gets trampled flat,” he said.
“Given the size and military might of the contenders, we can only imagine and be aghast at the terrible toll on human life and property that shall be inflicted if the ‘word war’ deteriorates into a real war of nuclear weapons and missiles.”
“I therefore call on the stakeholders in the South China Sea, the Korean Peninsula, the Middle East and Africa: if we cannot be friends as yet, then in God’s name, let us not hate each other too much. I
heard it once said, and I say it to myself in complete agreement,” the President said.