I yield my space to activist, chef and writer Giney Villar. This piece that she wrote after attending a lecture of former Solicitor General Florin Hilbay (which had her all riled up) in my opinion, deserves to be read by more people.
“Two years ago, the arbitral tribunal under the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea [Unclos] decided in our favor on the case we filed against China over incursions in our territorial waters. This is a fact, and not an opinion. The ruling gives the Philippines a concrete foundation by which to assert our right to our territorial and exclusive economic zones worth trillions of dollars with its rich natural gas and marine resources.
While we won the case, it is still imperative to protect our territories because the ruling has no implementing mechanism. China knows this and has taken full advantage of this gap to continue, and even make more aggressive its incursion into our territories. Thus, it is up to us to uphold that victory by finding ways to enforce it. It is, after all, not merely a matter of a few islands and rocks, but a matter of sovereignty.
Our victory should have inspired our government to vigorously protect our territories. This victory has provided us with strong moral and legal grounds to act against any violation by any claimant country. Instead, our government has chosen to downplay the ruling’s importance—touting war as the only consequence of standing our ground against China.
War, even for a rich and powerful country is not always a first option because it entails significant economic and related costs. War also does not seem to be necessary at this point, as our government action (and inaction) does not really give China a reason to rattle its spears. From publicly saying that we should deal with China in “meek and humble” ways, to calling the West Philippine Sea “disputed waters” despite a clear ruling in our favor, to secret personal meetings rather than official actions.
There is also the rapid militarization in the last two years of three out of sevens reefs seized from the Philippines since 2002, the destruction of our coral reefs and harassment of our fisher folk. This administration has tried to prove its case by saying that China will provide us with grants and loans, lauding China for ”allowing” our fisherfolk to fish in “relevant” waters, and announcing a “suitable legal framework” for offshore oil and gas exploration that does not appear to take into context the sovereignty issues over Philippine territories.
It is unthinkable that an independent country, that has won its case will turn back from its victory and go as far as defending China in subverting its own sovereignty. The Philippines already stands on a bedrock of fact from which it can take diplomatic action. And China, despite its alleged refusal to take part in the arbitration process, remains a member of Unclos. As a member, China is bound by its rules—one of which is that all members must submit themselves and abide by all arbitration decisions. Thus, there is no logical reason for our government’s subservient stance vis-à-vis China. The burden to heed the ruling is squarely on China’s shoulders.
The threat of war appears to be a strategy by this administration to sow fear in our hearts. It wants us to believe that resistance is futile—that it is either we die, or we accept the inevitability of Chinese “occupation.”
Is war inevitable if we decide as a country to fight for our sovereignty? Not if we choose to hold a vision of independence and sovereignty, and challenge this situation strategically.
The government should continue to invoke our legal claim to our territories using the arbitral ruling by firing off diplomatic protests and cases for violations committed by China. Recently, Acting Chief Justice Carpio noted that Chinese occupation of Woody Island, puts at risk 80 percent of our exclusive economic zone. Diplomatic protests will provide documentation of our resistance to Chinese expansionist moves, and demonstrate to the international community that we are faithfully upholding the ruling in our favor. Government inaction on the contrary, can be used as proof that we waive our rights under the ruling.
The Philippines must find ways to avoid fighting a battle from a disadvantaged position. Revisiting our formal and informal agreements and alliances with partners and neighbors can be employed to pressure China to abide by the tribunal decision, or at the very least slow them down. It cannot be overemphasized that whatever happens in West Philippine Sea will affect the fulcrum of the world’s economic and military powers in the future.
As a country, we have gone through so much. We continue to question our identity, highlight our differences and divide ourselves along those lines. Here we are at the precipice overlooking a landscape that will change our lives in ways unimaginable if we allow it. This government can use this threat to our sovereignty, and turn it into an opportunity to rally our citizens under one flag.
It is unfortunate that we have missed out on building our military and economic might through the years, but we cannot and should not be held back by this. We still have a powerful arsenal composed of a legal and recognized claim to our territories and lessons we must now quickly parlay into a clear vision, policies and action.
We used to be the envy of our Asian neighbors, sadly most of them have surpassed us in economic and military might (even Vietnam which until the mid-70s had been at war), I will not begrudge our citizens for this. We had a very different context. Our archipelagic landscape had proven to be both a blessing and challenge.
Here, in a very unusual way, we are presented with an opportunity to show our courage and leadership in Asia. An opportunity to also show ourselves that we know what to do with the freedom we enjoy. To overcome, we can take inspiration from former Solicitor General Florin Hilbay who said, “think long term and match the vision of the opponent.” China has lain in wait for decades to execute their vision. We know that now, and it is a lesson we can take well to heart.
We have a duty to demand that our government defend our country. And it is our responsibility to be relentless. We owe it to ourselves, our heroes who fought for our freedom, and our future generations.
We should avert war at all cost, but to keep the peace we have to fight.”
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