Bring Asean to the table

Dindo Manhit, President of the Stratbase ADR Institute

Three years after the Philippines won its landmark case against China, the Duterte administration appears consistent in applying a different policy toward Beijing. It set aside the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) ruling to harness Chinese financial resources through Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

The arbitral award should have been the country’s leverage to rally the cooperation of other states and other multilateral organizations to uphold international law. But the Duterte administration chose not to fight for the Hague victory, the President subscribing instead to China’s approach to the South China Sea dispute.

Mr. Duterte has repeatedly said he prefers friendship with China because it is “economically beneficial” to the Philippines. On many occasions, he said his inability to take “stronger” and “violent” action in asserting Philippine sovereignty is due to the lack of military muscle on the part of the Philippines to confront China.

Unfortunately, this defeatist policy has affected the Philippines’ territorial and long-term strategic economic interests. Worse, it has encouraged Beijing’s pervasive influence and assertiveness in the region. With an expansionist agenda, China has created an imbalance, leading to the demise of Southeast Asian maritime order.

Determined to benefit from the BRI, Mr. Duterte opened bilateral negotiations, declared the arbitral ruling as a bilateral issue and removed Asean (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) from the picture. Appeasement is now seen as the solution to become a beneficiary of Chinese loans, economic grants and investments, and to prevent conflict between the Philippines and the expansionist power.

Recently, Mr. Duterte issued even more glaring statements that again put in question his administration’s policy in terms of protecting the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ). While the Constitution mandates the President to protect the country’s marine wealth in its archipelagic waters, territorial sea and EEZ and to reserve such for the use and enjoyment of the Filipino people, Mr. Duterte claimed that he and President Xi had agreed that Chinese fishermen would no longer block Filipino fishermen from Scarborough Shoal as long as the Chinese would have access to Recto Bank.

Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr., for his part, said he was not aware of such a verbal agreement and noted that it is “not a policy.” Sen. Panfilo Lacson shared Locsin’s position that a national policy cannot be based on a mere verbal agreement.

Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, meanwhile, asserted that according to international law, the Philippines has sovereignty over its territorial seas and jurisdiction over its EEZ. He reminded government officials that in case there is a conflict between the Philippine Constitution and international law, the country’s Constitution will prevail.

Carpio further clarified that it does not mean that since the Philippines only has “sovereign rights” in its EEZ, it shouldn’t protect the area. The Constitution’s mandate on the exclusivity of the use of the country’s marine resources in its EEZ is not a “thoughtless and senseless” provision, he said.

It is unfortunate that the past three years has seen Filipino fishermen being intimidated and bullied in the West Philippine Sea, even as the Duterte administration is trying to value its friendship with China as beneficial to our welfare. Mr. Duterte’s fear of lack of support from the United States in the South China Sea has enabled him to foster interdependence with China that reduces chances of armed confrontation, but has also led to aggression and provocation against Philippine interests.

Former foreign secretary Albert del Rosario has urged the country’s leaders to stop being a “willing victim” and show to the world that we are worth helping before they can extend help to us. The only way to uphold the rule of law is to get the support of the community of nations and the Asean, he stressed.

Asean, amid all its challenges, remains the best platform for the 10 regional countries to settle differences and unite on key issues. Collective sovereign assertion should be the main regional concern, to be further supported by the arbitral ruling. In a world where “might is right,” the revitalization of the four major powers—the United States, Japan, India and Australia—should also help show strength in numbers, in order to survive in a rapidly changing Indo-Pacific region.

The last three years of this administration is an opportunity to protect the Philippines’ sovereignty and defend its people. It is time to stand and unite to fight for what is ours, for the sake of the next generation of Filipinos.




This article was originally published in Philippine Daily Inquirer.

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