"That was the day the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled in our favor."
It has become common for people to pose the question “Where were you on that day?” to indicate the importance that they attach to certain international or national events. Thus, people ask their friends and colleagues “Where were you on July 21, 1969?” to show that they regard the first human landing on the moon as an event of universe-shaking importance. And they ask “Where were you on September 11, 2001?” to manifest their continuing horrification over the dastardly Al Qaida attack on New York City’s landmark Twin Towers.
Over the years I have found myself asking the where-were-you question more and more. The objects of my question usually have been national or local in character, but from time to time I have asked “Where were you?” in relation to international happenings. During the last years I have found myself asking with increasing frequency the question “Where were you on July 12, 2016?”
Why am I asking my friends and colleagues where they were on July 12, 2016, more than exactly three years ago? And why do I consider July 12, 2016 sufficiently important for me to want to know where they were on that date? Because on July 12, 2016 The Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration, an institution recognized and supported by the United Nations, issued its ruling on Philippine government’s petition for the striking down of the People’s Republic of China ‘nine-dash’ claim to virtually the whole of the South China Sea, including the 337-kilometer exclusive economic zone granted to the Philippines by UNCLOS (UN Convention on the Law of the Sea).
In clear and succinct language, the PCA ruled that China’s nine-dash claim had absolutely no basis either in history or law. For the Philippines the PCA ruling was a magnificent victory; for China it was a severe humiliation. An internationally recognized arbitration body had just confirmed that the South China Sea, one of the world’s most strategic waterways, was mare nullus—a sea belonging to no one—and ruled that China had no basis for claiming vast waters encompassed by its nine-dash claim. Although an UNCLOS signatory, China did not participate in The Hague proceedings.
The announcement of the PCA ruling should have been an occasion for celebration and rejoicing in this country. But that was not what ensued because two adverse things happened. The first was China’s refusal to recognize the PCA ruling, which meant that it likely would continue to pursue its nine-dash claim; this, in fact, is what has been happening since. The other adverse development was newly installed President Rodrigo Duterte’s refusal to enforce this country’s victory, justifying his position with the claim that war with China was bound to follow a Philippine attempt to enforce the PCA ruling.
In the face of Philippine unwillingness to enforce its PCA victory, China has engaged in activities not only violative of UNCLOS and the PCA ruling but also inimical to Philippine interests. The latest of these illegal activities has been the June 9 incident in which a Chinese fishing boat operating in the Philippines’ EEZ—exploitation of the resources of which is reserved exclusively for Filipinos by UNCLOS—rammed a Philippine fishing boat and left its 22 crew members adrift at sea. Predictably, the Duterte administration’s response to that blatantly illegal Chinese activity has been anemic and weak.
The PCA ruling did two things for Philippine sovereignty and pride. It confirmed this country’s exclusive rights over the rich resources of its UNCLOS-bestowed EEZ. More important, it definitely laid to rest the specter of China’s being able to advance history and law as bases for its claim to ownership of one of the world’s most important seas, a claim it has for decades been pushing with big-country bully behavior.
The day when the PCA handed down its South China Sea ruling is a very important date in Philippine country. That’s why I want to know where my friends and colleagues were and what they were doing on that glorious day.
Me? I was putting the finishing touches to my column for the following day’s edition of the Manila Standard.