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Inutile No More? Duterte Finally Raises Arbitral Ruling On South China Sea Before UN, Pleasantly Surprises Critics

Inutile No More? Duterte Finally Raises Arbitral Ruling On South China Sea Before UN, Pleasantly Surprises Critics
In this image made from UNTV video, President Duterte speaks in a pre-recorded message which was played during the 75th Session of the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 22, 2020 at UN headquarters in New York City. (UNTV via AP)

In his penultimate State of the Nation Address last July, President Duterte was criticized for his defeatist attitude toward China when he spoke about the South China Sea issue.

“Now, plenty of critics, both sides, claim about nothing has been done to retake forcefully or physically the South China Sea. Alam mo, unless we are prepared to go to war, I would suggest that we better just call off and treat this, I said, with diplomatic endeavors. China is claiming it. We are claiming it. China has the arms, we do not have it,” Duterte said on July 28.

Lamenting his helplessness against the military might of China, he said: “So it is simple as that. They are in possession of the property. It will remain a property of a… if you’re a lawyer, property rights. They are – it has nothing to do with the Philippine laws of property, but it’s akin to – they are in possession. So what can we do? We have to go to war and I cannot afford it. Maybe some other president can, but I cannot. Inutil ako diyan, sabihin ko sa inyo. And I’m willing to admit it. Talagang inutil ako diyan. Wala akong magawa. I cannot… the moment I send my Marines there at the coastal shores of Palawan, tinamaan ng cruise missile lahat iyan. Hindi pa nga naka-set sail iyan eh sabog na.”

These were only some of Duterte’s pronouncements since he assumed office in 2016 that made critics accuse him of selling out the Philippines in exchange for Chinese aid even if he had been saying that he would raise the country's arbitration victory at the proper time.

On Tuesday, Sept. 22, Duterte surprised his critics as he vowed to reject efforts to undermine the historic arbitral ruling that voided China's expansive maritime claim in the South China Sea during his first address before the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA).

Duterte said the ruling is already part of international law and could no longer be abandoned by governments.

The President addressed the High-Level General Debate of the 75th Session of the UNGA – the main deliberative organ of the UN where all the 193 member states are represented – from the Malacañang Golf Clubhouse in Malacañang Park.

“We must remain mindful of our obligations and commitment to the charter of the United Nations and as amplified by the 1982 Manila Declaration on the Peaceful Settlement of International Disputes. The Philippines affirms that commitment in the South China Sea in accordance with UNCLOS and the 2016 arbitral award,” Duterte told the assembly, which included representatives from China, as he referred to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

“The award is now part of international law, beyond compromise and beyond the reach of passing governments to dilute, diminish or abandon. We firmly reject attempts to undermine it,” he stressed.

In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration based in The Hague ruled that China’s maritime claim, which covers about 90 percent of the resource-rich South China Sea, has no legal basis. The ruling also affirmed the Philippines’ sovereign rights over its 200-mile exclusive economic zone or EEZ, specifically over Panganiban (Mischief) Reef, Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal and Recto (Reed) Bank.

The ruling also declared Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal off Zambales as a common fishing ground, and stated that Chinese moves to drive away Filipino fishermen from the shoal violated Philippine rights.

China has rejected the ruling, calling it “illegal since day one.”

The landmark ruling stemmed from a case seeking the definition of the Philippines’ maritime entitlements under UNCLOS. The case was filed by the administration of former president Benigno Aquino III, which described China’s claim as “excessive” and “exaggerated.”

Upon assuming power, Duterte decided to set aside the maritime dispute to improve the Philippines’ ties with China, but assured Filipinos that he would not give up even an inch of the country’s territory to foreign powers.

His administration, however, has rejected calls to file new cases against China for violating its obligation under UNCLOS to protect the marine environment. Issues related to the South China Sea can be discussed through bilateral consultations with the Chinese government, Philippine officials have said.

Addressing the UNGA on Tuesday, Duterte said: “We welcome the increasing number of states that have come in support of the award and what it stands for – the triumph of reason over rashness, of law over disorder, of amity over ambition. This – as it should – is the majesty of the law.”

China has created artificial islands on Kagitingan (Fiery Cross), Panganiban, Zamora (Subi), Burgos (Gaven), Kennan (Hughes), Mabini (Johnson) and Calderon (Cuarteron) Reefs – areas located off Palawan that are also being claimed by the Philippines. Various sectors have expressed concern that China’s island-building would affect freedom of flight and navigation in the area.

‘Do not hate each other too much’

Duterte also warned world leaders about the possible effects of geopolitical tensions that continue to rise while the world is grappling with the coronavirus pandemic.

He said the tensions could inflict a “terrible toll” on human life and property if the “word war” between some countries deteriorated into a real war involving nuclear weapons and missiles.

“Escalating tensions benefit no one. New flashpoints heighten fears and tend to tear peoples apart. When elephants fight, it is the grass that gets trampled flat,” Duterte said.

“I therefore call on the stakeholders in the South China Sea, the Korean Peninsula, the Middle East and Africa: if we cannot be friends as yet, then in God’s name, let us not hate each other too much. I heard it once said, and I say it to myself in complete agreement,” he added.

Alipin no more’

On Wednesday, Sept. 23, senators commended Duterte for his address before the UNGA, specifically his position on the South China Sea.

Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto said if there was an Emmy for the UNGA speeches, the one Duterte delivered could win the prize for the best written. The Emmys honor the best in primetime television programming in the United States.

According to Recto, Duterte’s team who put policies to prose should be congratulated as “what they put together is the template for presidential addresses: cohesive, coherent and straight to the point.”

“If he was able to convey his thoughts with clarity to the world, all the more he should do the same to his own people at this time when they need hope and direction,” Recto stressed.

Recto expressed belief that Duterte’s unequivocal stance against China’s illegal reclamation in the country’s waters should put to rest any ambivalence on where he and the government stand on this important issue.

“From where he spoke, with the whole world watching, he was able to plant our flag on a territory that historically and legally is ours,” Recto said.

Sen. Panfilo Lacson, who chairs the Senate committee on national defense and security, said hearing the President invoke the arbitral award before the UNGA should now erase doubts on where he stands regarding the West Philippine Sea (WPS) issue.

Alipin no more!” Lacson posted on Twitter. Alipin is Filipino for slave.

“Filipinos from both sides of the political aisle should feel proud hearing the President express his strong and unequivocal position on the WPS issue,” Lacson said. “More importantly, I hope that China heard the President’s message loud and clear.”

Opposition Sen. Francis Pangilinan also lauded Duterte’s pronouncements asserting the tribunal ruling.

“We hope he will match these strong words with actions to include bringing the matter officially before the UN as well as seeking support from our ASEAN allies such as Indonesia and Vietnam who have stood up to China and opposed its aggression in the disputed waters,” Pangilinan said. “We also hope he doesn’t change his mind and does a 180-degree turn moving forward.”

‘Get support of more countries’

Albert del Rosario, who as foreign affairs secretary filed the arbitration case in The Hague, welcomed the President’s statement on Wednesday.

“This is the first time that our President addressed the UNGA and we are heartened to know that he is not at all impervious but listens to the will of his countrymen. We also welcome President Duterte’s statement that he supports the ‘increasing number of states that have come in support of the Award’ – and this include the US, France, Germany, (United Kingdom), Australia and others,” Del Rosario said in a statement.

He noted that by invoking the arbitral award, Duterte “has acted more faithfully to our Constitution, which mandates him and our military to secure our country’s sovereignty and protect our lands and seas.”

“The next step is for our President and his administration to put in reality the invocation of the arbitral award: our government should work earnestly to get the support of more countries so that the arbitral award will be raised more emphatically next year, for the UNGA 2021,” Del Rosario stated.

“We hope that this puts to rest the misconception that bringing the arbitral award to the UNGA is re-litigating the case. All Filipinos should now unite so that that the world will help our country enforce the arbitral award against China. Let us not allow this opportunity to be put to waste,” Del Rosario declared. “We deeply thank you, Mr. President, for defending what is ours.”

Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. has rejected calls to bring up the landmark arbitration ruling to the UNGA, saying the award would only turn Manila's win into a "question of numbers.”

"We won it already, why would you want to re-litigate something that you won? It's like you don't like you won? It doesn't make sense so I rejected it," Locsin said.

Locsin noted that China can reject the decision as a matter of "opinion" but the fact remains that Manila won and that the law is on its side.

"We won, we don't need to go back to the UN. You bring it back to the UN and it becomes a question of numbers. And this has nothing to do with numbers, it has to do with law. Law is eternal, the rest is opinion," he argued.

Former Supreme Court senior associate justice Antonio Carpio praised Duterte for showing a strong stand before the UNGA.

Carpio, who was among those who defended the Philippine claims before the arbitration court, also called Duterte’s recognition of the countries that have expressed their support to the country’s victory as “heartening.”

Just last week, France, Germany and the UK told the UN that they reject China’s  “historic rights” in the South China Sea.

“I fervently hope that this is the policy that the Duterte administration will implement across all levels –  in the protection of our exclusive economic zone in the West Philippines Sea, in the negotiations for the Code of Conduct, and in gathering the support of the international community for the enforcement of the arbitral award,” Carpio said.

Muntinlupa City Rep. Ruffy Biazon, senior vice chairman of the House committee on national defense and security, was also elated over Duterte’s statements at the UNGA.

“Mission accomplished, Mr. President! By making that statement in the UN General Assembly, the President makes it known that the Philippines intends to exercise its rights to explore, exploit and manage the resources in our EEZ,” Biazon said.

“His acknowledgment of other countries’ unified stance in support of the arbitral ruling also points out a basis for the Philippines to engage these countries as allies in the assertion of our rights in our exclusive economic zone,” he added. “This shows that the Philippines can stand up against the intrusions and assertions by China in South China Sea without resorting to war.” – With Paolo Romero, Evelyn Macairan