EXACTLY a year ago today, Wednesday, the Philippines scored a decisive victory over China in the dispute over the West Philippine Sea, called South China Sea by the Chinese.
One year on, the Philippines has yet to fully reap the fruits of the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA), based in The Hague, Netherlands, as China continues to defy the decision with its continued fortification of military assets in the South China Sea.
Just last month, the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), which was founded by US-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies, reported that China is installing new missile shelters, radar and communication facilities and other infrastructure on Fiery Cross, Mischief and Subi Reefs, all in the Spratly Islands.
Beijing claims 90 percent of the South China Sea, which is believed to hold a wealth of untapped oil and gas deposits. An estimated US$5.3 trillion of trade passes annually in the disputed maritime region, parts of which are also claimed by Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.
China claims much of the maritime region through its “nine-dash line” demarcation, which the PCA, an intergovernmental organization, deemed illegal.
“A year after the ruling of the PCA at The Hague, the Philippines and China are now in dialogue,” said Presidential spokesperson Ernesto Abella during a live telecast press briefing on Tuesday in Manila.
Both countries held the first Philippine-China Bilateral Consultation Mechanism on the South China Sea only last May, or 10 months after the tribunal ruled in favor of the Philippine claims in the disputed waters.
Abella noted that both sides reiterated their commitment to cooperate and to find ways to strengthen the trust and confidence on issues related to the WPS (West Philippine Sea).
A second meeting between the two countries is set before the end of the year to hopefully reach a mutually acceptable arrangement, the official added.
Abella hinted that part of the discussions would be the access of Filipino fishermen to the marine-rich ocean. The Filipino fishermen were reportedly afraid to venture there for fear of harassment from the Chinese coastguard.
“It’s excellent that we are now in dialogue with the other country,” he stressed.
But clearly, a year has gone with the Philippines failing to fully assert its victory at the Hague tribunal over the South China Sea.
President Rodrigo Duterte has steered the Philippines closer to China as part of his “independent foreign policy” tack. Traditionally, Manila is a long-time ally of the United States, a relationship Duterte is working to reshape by pursuing an independent foreign policy that also includes pivoting to Russia.
“Since assuming office, President Duterte has pursued an “independent foreign policy” that keeps the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration on the back burner,” said Dindo Manhit, president of the Manila-based Stratbase ADR Institute for Strategic and International Studies.
Duterte’s pivot to China, for sure, has brought good tidings to the Philippines mostly in terms of investment pledges from Beijing. Just recently, China handed firearms worth PHP370 million (US$7.3 milion) to the Armed Forces of the Philippines.
“But given that China continues to beef up its capabilities in the West Philippine Sea, despite our otherwise warming relations, the Philippines must recalibrate its current policy and render it independent in the fullest sense,” Manhit said.
“As our President boosts economic ties with China, he ought to sharpen the teeth of the ruling by matching China’s creep with an upgrade of facilities and defenses in the Kalayaan Island Group, and a buildup of the military and Coast Guard’s ability to patrol and protect our territorial waters and exclusive economic zone,” he added.
Former Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario, who led the Philippine team in challenging China’s claim in the South China Sea before the Hague tribunal, lamented that since the favorable ruling, the Philippines “has not seen the change it would have wanted from Beijing.”
“It (China) has neither changed in its direction nor exercised greater restraint. Despite its friendlier face, we do not see restraint in China’s militarization and unlawful activity in the West Philippine Sea,” del Rosario, also former Philippine ambassador to the United States, said in piece published by the Philippine Daily Inquirer on Wednesday.
Beijing’s aggressive actions in the South China Sea are not accidental, they are intentional, and they continue to this day, del Rosario, who also chairs the Stratbase ADR Institute, said.
He urged the Duterte administration to be categorical in protecting Philippine sovereignty and the country’s national patrimony over the West Philippine Sea.
As this year’s chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), del Rosario said the Philippines has an opportunity that comes only once in a decade: “There is room for us to steer the discussions on the proposed code of conduct (in the South China Sea), to ensure that it is effective, binding, and quickly concluded.”
A survey conducted by the Manila-based Pulse Asia released in January showed that eight in 10 Filipinos wanted the government to assert its claim in the West Philippine Sea.
On the first anniversary of the arbitral ruling, Foreign Affairs Secretary Allan Peter Cayetano said the Duterte administration remains committed to protect the country’s territorial claims and maritime entitlements.
“But (we) believe that the ongoing territorial dispute in the West Philippine Sea should further be resolved in a manner consistent with the spirit of good neighbourly relations,” Cayetano said.
Through the “adoption of positive neighbourly relations,” Cayetano said that Filipino fishermen “are back exercising their livelihood in Scarborough Shoal,” contrary to reports that local fishermen are afraid to go there for fear of harassment by Chinese naval personnel.
Cayetano expressed confidence the Code of Conduct on the South China Sea will help resolve the maritime row with China.
The official noted that the Duterte Administration is committed “to its strategy to strengthen old allies and engage new partner nations.”
“The Philippines shall remain an enemy to none and a friend to all in its pursuit of economic and political benefits for the country, including the long-term security and stability in the region,” Cayetano said.