In 2014, two years after it lost possession of Scarborough (Panatag) Shoal in a two-month standoff, the Philippines haled China to the Permanent Court of Arbitration, a tribunal established under UNCLOS (UN Convention on the Law of the Sea), of which China and the Philippines are signatories. China refused to participate in the proceedings.
On July 23, 2016 PCA issued a ruling declaring that the territorial claims embodied in the so-called nine-dash line had no legal basis and that Filipino fishermen had historical rights to fish in the Panatag Shoal. In an additional display of intransigence, China refused to recognize PCA ruling.
In both instances this country had international law—represented by the UN, UNCLOS and PCA—on its side. Conversely, by its actions, China had placed itself beyond the pale of international law. Unfortunately, UNCLOS embodies no enforcement mechanism.
Given this background, and in the midst of the recent statements and actions of President Duterte, his Secretary of Foreign Affairs and his Secretary of National Defense, I am constrained to ask, did the Philippines lose the PCA arbitration case? Stated differently, did PCA adjudge China to have a legal right to all the territory encompassed by the so-called nine-dash line?
I am constrained to ask this question because of all the tiptoeing, kowtowing and walking-on-eggshells that President Duterte and his key people have been doing where relations with China have been concerned. The Chief Executive’s declared unwillingness to take up the PCA ruling during his State visit to China—“I may take it up, but only generally” one day and “I will not take it up” the next day—his talk about an “alliance” with China and the remarks about getting all sorts of goodies, from railways to loans and investments, from China. And, of course, the pilgrimage-like visit itself.
So, I ask, as former President Fidel V. Ramos asked in his newspaper column last week: what gives?
Mr. Duterte seems to think that he is the only Filipino who is interested in good and ever-improving relations with this country’s giant neighbor to the northwest. Very wrong he is. The Filipino people—including the millions who did not vote for Rodrigo Duterte—value highly cordial and mutually beneficial relations with China and all other countries that will be friendly and helpful to the Philippines. They, too, want to see the Chinese goodies come to this country to make Philippine society better and more progressive.
But under present circumstances, tiptoeing and kowtowing to China are out of place. China forcibly deprived this country of its international entitlement when it drove Filipino fishermen away from Scarborough Shoal in 2014. Even today those same fishermen are being deprived by China’s Coast Guard of their right to earn a living in a historically Philippine fishing ground. It bears pointing out, in this connection, that Secretary of Foreign Affairs Perfecto Yasay Jr. spoke recently of seeking Chinese “approval” for Filipino fishermen to fish once again in Scarborough Shoal.
Mr. Duterte and his key people may or may not be good card players. If they are, they should know that when one has a good hand, one can afford to be confident.
The Philippines won the PCA arbitration case. It should, at the very least, not behave like it lost the case. Any conciliatory and trust-rebuilding gestures should come from the loser, not the other way around.