June 7, 2016
By Elena L. Aben
The administration of incoming President Rodrigo Duterte should wait for the United Nations (UN) arbitral tribunal to issue a ruling on the case lodged by the Philippines before pursuing bilateral talks with China.
So said former Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert Del Rosario, adding that the Duterte administration must have a strategy on how it would deal with the UN Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling over the country’s maritime claims against China.
“I think, it’s only a matter of timing. For example, in terms of the bilateral negotiations, we favor negotiations but the timing is, it must be geared towards the conclusion of the arbitration court,” said del Rosario.
The former DFA secretary made the statement in a forum, titled “Asia-Pacific perspective on the implementing the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement: Insights on the Bilateral Security Dialogue,” held Tuesday at the National Defense College of the Philippines (NDCP) in Camp Aguinaldo.
“Obviously, for many reasons, but most valid of which is the Tribunal. We must await the decision from it before we start talking with China. It’s otherwise, the judges are going to think twice about what it is that we’re doing right,” he added.
The Philippines filed an arbitration case against China before the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, Netherlands in 2013. A decision is expected within the month.
“I think the decision will come out soon and I think that will trigger what we want to do in terms of how we will settle with China in terms of the maritime entitlements that would be defined,” del Rosario said.
China, which has turned aggressive in its claims over the past years, has repeatedly said that it will never honor the decision of the UN court over the maritime dispute, which the international community believed, should be in favor of the Philippines.
Ernest Bower, chair of the Southeast Asia Advisory Board at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), said China has to make an assessment if it is worth it to continue to ignore the court and ignore international opinion on the issue.
“I personally don’t think it makes sense for China. They could do so much better without this 9-dash-line claim. In fact, I’m sure everyone will expect to work with China and try to develop resources in the South China Sea, except for the 9-dash-line,” he said.
Bower likewise believed “there would be an international outcry against China if they try to do construction on Scarborough,” adding subsequent actions by China once the construction will be resisted by Manila could trigger the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) between the Philippines and the US.
Last month, Duterte said he may opt to go bilateral in resolving the dispute over the contested areas.
But Gregory Poling, director for Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) of the CSIS, said it may not be possible to settle the entire territorial dispute bilaterally.
“It’s impossible to talk bilaterally without sovereignty of the Spratlys or overlapping claims because there are at least four other countries involved. A bilateral deal is impossible,” said Poling, referring to Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and Vietnam.
Poling said though that Philippines and China may enter into such bilateral talks over areas that are only contested by the two countries.
“I don’t think anybody would object if China and the Philippines discuss resource sharing along an area that is only disputed by Philippines and China. Of course, if the Philippines tried to negotiate away sovereignty issues, rights issues, over area that overlaps with Vietnam and Malaysia that’s a whole different ballgame. But we’ve not heard any indication that that would be the case,” he said.