One year on, time to sharpen teeth?

Dindo Manhit, President of the Stratbase ADR Institute for Strategic and International Studies

On July 12, 2016, the Philippines scored a decisive legal victory against China, through a ruling that represents an important contribution to the clarity of our country’s rights and to the rule of international law in Asia. Today, as we approach the first anniversary of the ruling, we are left to wonder whether developments in Philippine policy are truly ground for optimism.

Unrequited friendship. 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, leading to a normalization of diplomatic relations with China, a revitalization of trade, and an extraction of some, now well-known, economic promises.

The President’s actions suggest that he is weakening the Philippines’ position within the US-led alliance system, in a bid to forge stronger ties with the country that poses a threat to our territorial sovereignty and maritime rights. While the President continues to acknowledge the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty, he opted to downgrade our source of external support when he decided to scale down the Balikatan exercises. Last year, he also called for the Navy to refrain from conducting patrols and freedom-of-navigation operations with the United States.

Conversely, Mr. Duterte has entertained the idea of cooperation with China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which supports the Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) and maritime militia in asserting Beijing’s claims. A few days ago, he received P370 million in firearms for the Armed Forces, to help with operations in Marawi. Moreover, under the President, we omitted the international concern over China’s militarization in the West Philippine Sea from the Asean Chairman’s Statement.

Despite his efforts to normalize PH-China relations, the latter still proceeded with its military buildup in the West Philippine Sea. Based on a June report from the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, China is installing new missile shelters, radar and communication facilities, and other infrastructure on Fiery Cross, Mischief and Subi Reefs. These are expected to help China gain a better picture of the waters, which, in turn, will render the CCG’s and PLA’s tracking and intercepting of Philippine and other vessels more effective.

Sharpening teeth. We credit President Duterte for defusing tensions between the Philippines and China, especially at a period when the country is also facing domestic security and development concerns. To some extent, the newly attained fragile peace in external security has allowed our government to focus energies on addressing the most visceral concerns of ordinary Filipinos.

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. 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.

Learning from history, the Philippines as a small power cannot rely only on the magnanimity of others. Manila cannot compel Beijing to comply with the ruling, but we can raise the cost of noncompliance. The President may opt to uphold his fresh approach to China. But he must not lose sight of the need to bolster our own capabilities and to strengthen our partnerships with countries with whom we share an interest in the preservation of the law of the sea.

On July 12, Stratbase ADR Institute will hold a forum titled “The Framework Code of Conduct, One Year After Arbitration.” The by-invitation forum will feature insights from Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, Justice Antonio Carpio, Dr. Jay Batongbacal, former national security adviser Roilo Golez, Dr. Ginnie Bacay-Watson, and Mr. Koichi Ai, in addition to myself and Ambassador Albert del Rosario.

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