Recently, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in the Netherlands overwhelmingly ruled in favor of the Philippines against China in their territorial dispute over portions of the South China Sea. In unequivocal terms, the UN tribunal ruled that the Philippines has sovereign rights over that part it calls West Philippine Sea.
In summary, the court, which settles disputes involving the United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Sea (Unclos), ruled in favor of the Philippines over all major points raised by the Philippines, to wit:
- The nine-dash line map being used by China to claim virtually the entire South China Sea was declared invalid and incompatible with Unclos, a treaty ratified by 167 states, including China and the Philippines;
- China’s accession to the Unclos means it accepted the limited zones of maritime entitlements in the convention, hence, China cannot assert its theory of historic rights to living and non-living resources in the West Philippine Sea;
- China’s law-enforcement activities in the area were declared illegal as well as its land-reclamation activities; and
- Geographic features do not generate maritime zone entitlements that support China’s claims to 89 percent of the sea.
In a perfect world, the Philippines can now focus on securing the islands and the waters in the area and tapping it for economic gains for the country and its people. Filipino fishermen can again fish in the waters of the sea, Philippine consortiums can start digging for oil and natural gas, and commercial vessels can freely pass through the area.
But ours is an imperfect world, made even more so by rogue leaders who wish to impose their will on other people.
China, which from the start has refused to participate in the proceedings nor accept any ruling that the tribunal would make despite being a signatory to Unclos, steadfastly reject the decision, saying the ruling was null and void and that Beijing would not accept it.
President Xi Jinping of China insisted that the South China Sea has been Chinese territory since “ancient times” and said China’s territorial sovereignty and interests in the region would not be influenced under any circumstances by the ruling.
“This farce is now over,” said Foreign Minister Wang Yi. “China opposes and will never accept any claim or action based on those awards.”
The ministry stressed that the Philippines’ move to initiate arbitration without China’s consent had been in “bad faith” and in violation of international law.
These are arrogant words from a nation that has been declared in violation of international law (Unclos) by encroaching on the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and by refusing to accept a ruling by a tribunal created by international law.
The United States, the European Union and other western powers, which have stressed the need to maintain freedom of navigation in the area and the rule of law, cautioned China against rejecting the verdict and warned both sides to avoid provocative statements and actions that would only intensify the conflict.
China, meanwhile, cautioned of conflict and confrontations and warned western powers against turning the South China Sea into a “cradle of war.”
A Chinese military expert said China might choose to take a hard line with the Philippines, perhaps taking punitive measures such as sanctions, to send a message to other claimants, such as Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia regarding the South China Sea issue.
While blaming the Philippines for “stirring trouble” in the South China Sea by relying on “distorted facts and concocted a pack of lies” to push forward the arbitration proceedings, Beijing remains optimistic about bilateral negotiations with Manila.
“China stands ready to work with the new Philippine government,” Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin said, adding that “early removal of obstacles posed by the arbitration case” would help improve relations.
The biggest question now is what will the Philippine government do next? Despite the overwhelming victory in the sea claims case, the Duterte administration continues to send mixed signals.
Presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella said the administration is preparing, in consultation with experts, the “right response at the right time,” adding that the Philippines welcomes the arbitration court’s decision, but will proceed with “sobriety and restraint.”
The call for sobriety and restraint seems the correct move at this time, knowing fully well that the new administration has not really made a definitive stand on the issue although President Duterte and Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. have both said the country is willing to hold bilateral talks with China.
The question remains, even after the favorable tribunal ruling and pledge of support from Western powers, whether the Duterte administration would choose cooperation over conflict. Which one would it be?