Reinforcing the 2016 Arbitral Victory to uphold a Rules-Based Maritime Order

Prof. Dindo Manhit, President, Stratbase ADR Institute

Over the years, the maritime domain has become a key security concern in the Indo-Pacific. Territorial disputes, unlawful acts against the safety of maritime navigation, and illegal activities in the fisheries sector have affected global efforts to promote and advance a rules-based maritime order.

The increasing complexity of the region’s security architecture caused by China’s expansionism has also undermined the capacity of states to manage and address issues collectively.

In the context of the Philippines, the new administration under the leadership of President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. is expected to face many challenges in the West Philippine Sea. Marcos’ assertion of talking to China with a “firm voice” and his promise of not giving up “a single millimeter of the country’s maritime coastal rights” will be closely observed, especially in his future engagements with China.

The foreign policy pivot made by the previous administration in 2016 has greatly affected the country’s position and claims in the disputed waters. Gray zone operations, illegal incursions, and the construction of military facilities on reefs within the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) have also continued.

While the country waits for a more precise and unequivocal national security policy, President Marcos Jr. should look into ways of developing the country’s defense and security potential. Establishing multilateral and inclusive cooperation with like-minded states are key to the enforcement of our rights in the West Philippine Sea.

The 2016 arbitral ruling issued by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague is a monumental win for the Philippines. Although the previous administration dismissed it in exchange for infrastructure funding from China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the ruling remains a relevant foreign policy tool that can and should be used to help the country pursue its strategic interests and effectively address issues in the West Philippine Sea.

President Marcos Jr. can remain committed to his promise of safeguarding the country’s national sovereignty and territorial integrity with the acknowledgment and support of the international community, including the United States, Australia, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the European Union.

On the 6th anniversary of the landmark ruling, the new administration should be reminded of its role and commitment to promote and maintain a rules-based maritime order in the region. Although domestic issues, including the country’s high budget deficit and income inequality, continue to be a concern, issues in the West Philippine Sea should not be set aside.

President Marcos Jr. and the new members of his Cabinet must stand firm in acknowledging and asserting the country’s claims over the West Philippine Sea. At the same time, they should establish policies that are consistent with the interests of the Filipino people.

The results of the Pulse Asia survey commissioned by the Stratbase Albert del Rosario Institute on June 24 to 27, 2022 reveal the strong public perception on issues in the West Philippine Sea. In the survey, 89% of respondents believe that President Marcos Jr. must assert the country’s rights in the West Philippine Sea as stipulated in the 2016 Arbitral Ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration. Ninety percent agree that in asserting these rights, the new administration must invest in the capability of the Philippine Navy and the Philippine Coast Guard to protect the country’s territory and marine resources within its EEZ. Public opinion on alliances also remains high, with 84% agreeing that President Marcos Jr. should form alliances with other countries to defend Philippine territorial rights in the West Philippine Sea.

In line with this, the Stratbase Albert del Rosario Institute recently organized a hybrid international conference titled “Redefining Maritime Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific in an Age of Uncertainty” to examine and discuss how the Philippines can harness its inherent maritime potential and position itself as a key player in the maritime domain.

Moderated by Professor Charmaine Willoughby, the conference gathered local and regional security experts, including Lisa Curtis (Director of the Indo-Pacific Security Program, Center for a New American Security), Yusuke Takagi (Associate Professor, National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies), Murray Hiebert (Director for Research, BowerGroupAsia), John Blaxland (Professor of International Security & Intelligence Studies, Australia National University), Dr. Renato de Castro (Trustee and Program Convenor, Stratbase ADR Institute); and Rear Admiral Rommel Jude Ong (Executive Director, Security Reform Initiative, Professor of Praxis, Ateneo School of Government).

Members of the diplomatic community such as Ambassador Jose Manuel “Babe” Romualdez (Philippine Ambassador to the United States), and Ambassador Jana Sediva (Ambassador, Embassy of the Czech Republic) also spoke at the event to share their insights on multilateral cooperation and maritime security in the region.

The international conference highlighted the need for states like the Philippines to engage in multilateral and strategic cooperation to respond to current and emerging challenges in the maritime domain. It also emphasized the significance of reinforcing the 2016 arbitral victory to strengthen the capacity of the Philippines to manage issues in the West Philippine Sea. Aside from these, the experts also shared their policy recommendations for the new administration, especially on the future direction of its foreign and security policy.

The new administration must learn from the lessons of the past administrations. President Marcos Jr. now has the chance to implement policies and initiatives that will allow the Philippines to defend and assert its rights in the West Philippine Sea and be one with nations that bolster a maritime rules-based order.

This article was originally published in the BusinessWorld Commentary.

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