2016 arbitral legacy must be upheld

Dindo Manhit, President, Stratbase ADR Institute

Amid rising tensions in the West Philippine Sea (WPS), the Duterte administration has persistently set aside the 2016 Arbitral Award and is playing powerless against the lingering presence of Chinese maritime militia vessels in the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). During the celebration of the 46th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and the Philippines, President Duterte vowed to continue promoting a “win-win cooperation” with China, citing that country’s role and influence in the region.

After brandishing a stronger stance on the WPS issue during his election campaign, President Duterte early in his term announced that he would sever ties with the United States and forge a more robust diplomatic relationship with China. Since then, the administration has pursued its defeatist attitude and inaction on China’s expansionist agenda in the WPS.

Filipinos have expressed serious concerns over China’s actions, which violate Philippine sovereignty and undermine the maritime commons and stability in the region. According to Social Weather Stations surveys, between June 2019 and July 2020, 70 percent to 87 percent of Filipinos agreed that the Philippine government “should assert its right to the islands in the West Philippine Sea as stipulated in the 2016 decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration.”

Still, the President chose to downplay the arbitral ruling as a “piece of paper.” Bringing the WPS issue to the United Nations was a waste of time, he said, and would only disrupt the “good” relations between China and the Philippines.

The previous administration pursued a policy to clarify the country’s maritime entitlement in the WPS and rightly challenged the validity of China’s absurd territorial claims. As the chief architect of the country’s foreign policy, the late President Benigno Aquino III maintained close ties with allies and partners, including the United States, Japan, Australia, and several maritime nations in Southeast Asia. He also led the initiative to file the country’s victorious arbitration case against China despite the economic and political challenges the country was facing during that time.

In one of his speeches, then President Aquino said that standing up to a giant is no small feat, but his administration chose to do so because it was the right thing to do. He also emphasized that China’s actions in the region violate not only the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, but also the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

With less than a year left before the 2022 elections, the Philippines must urgently recalibrate its foreign policy and security strategy to effectively respond to China’s regional aggression and manage the dire consequences of President Duterte’s appeasement policy. Aside from working closely with like-minded states, the country should explore viable options such as the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement with the United States, the Status of Forces Agreement with Australia, the establishment of a strategic partnership with Vietnam, the development of the National Coast Watch Center, and joint collaborations between Japan and the Philippine Coast Guard to strengthen the country’s defense, security, and law enforcement capabilities in the WPS.

As the country commemorates the fifth anniversary of the 2016 Arbitral Award, the Philippines’ next set of leaders must be reminded of the importance of this landmark legacy. The 2016 arbitral ruling is about international respect for the rule of law. It is the Philippine government’s constitutional mandate and responsibility to assert unwaveringly the country’s sovereign and territorial jurisdiction, and stand for the preservation of a rules-based international order.

This article was originally published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer. Image Source: AP/Bullit Marquez.

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