By J.C. Gotinga*
At least four times this year, Manila has reported confronting and driving away mostly Chinese ships from waters that the Philippines claims in the South China Sea.
Cabinet members, as well as the Southeast Asian country’s military and law-enforcement leaders have also been more assertive in dealing with the Chinese presence in the waters within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ). The Chinese incursions prompted Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. to call on ASEAN to fast-track the drafting of a Code of Conduct (CoC) between its 10 members and China to govern maritime encounters in the disputed waterway.
Opinion polls show the Filipino public approves of Manila’s moves, but this new assertiveness may be a case of too little, too late, analysts told BenarNews ahead of the fifth anniversary of an historic legal victory by the Philippines against China, over the latter’s expansive claims in the South China Sea.
“What we lost is time to articulate our victory over China, and to start mobilizing a coalition of nations willing to enforce the ruling,” Renato de Castro, professor of international studies at the De La Salle University in Manila, told Benar News.
“The Philippines’ slack has been taken up by countries who also saw that it’s in their interest to use the ruling against China. What we lost is basically our sense of self-respect and dignity.”
On July 12, 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague affirmed the Philippines’ rights to its territories under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and declared China’s claim over most of the South China Sea as baseless.
Since then, instead of leveraging the award, President Rodrigo Duterte, who came to power only weeks before the win, ignored the verdict and pursued friendlier ties with China even as Beijing repeatedly rejected the international ruling that declared its claim.
It was a turnaround from the stance of his predecessor, Benigno Aquino III, who died last month.
Duterte has often insisted that using the arbitral award to assert Philippine rights in the sea would be pointless as it would only “spark a war” with China.
Even though he told the United Nations General Assembly last year that the arbitration award was “beyond compromise,” Duterte returned to his old stance in May, when he called the verdict a “mere piece of paper” that he would “throw into the wastebasket.”
“That’s so ironic, that our president would basically state the Chinese communist party’s position regarding the ruling. That’s a national tragedy,” de Castro said.
Meanwhile, Beijing’s pledges of U.S. $24 billion in economic assistance for infrastructure projects have yet to materialize.
Its coast guard and fishing vessels – suspected to be maritime militias – have not pulled out of Philippine-claimed waters, and in fact, have allegedly scaled up their presence all over Manila’s EEZ and islets in the sea region.
“Nothing came out of this government’s appeasement policy on China,” De Castro said.
“We got no concessions from China whatsoever.”
Duterte could have instead spent the last five years making the rounds of forums such as the U.N. General Assembly and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to get the world’s naval powers to assist in implementing the South China Sea ruling, de Castro and other analysts said.
Now, with less than a year left in Duterte’s one and only six-year term, his administration is facing increased scrutiny of the government’s achievements and failures.
‘Lost self-respect and dignity’
While Duterte was courting China, other South China Sea claimant countries such as Malaysia and Vietnam have cited the international ruling in their pleadings with the U.N.
Indonesia, which does not consider itself a party to the dispute, cited the arbitral court’s ruling when it challenged China over fishing rights in the waters off the Natuna Islands.
“Individual countries are already enforcing the ruling, but it could have made a great difference if there was a coalition of the willing led by the country that won the case,” de Castro said.
Many countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Australia, Japan and India, have also sent or have pledged to send their navies to the South China Sea on freedom of navigation operations, without Manila’s prodding.
If Manila had been more assertive early on about implementing the South China Sea award, it could have forced ASEAN and China to move faster with the CoC, said Chester Cabalza, president of the Manila-based think-tank International Development and Security Foundation.
“We could have already completed the Code of Conduct, because there would have been actual encounters on the ground, and those would have clarified procedural issues in completing the CoC,” Cabalza told BenarNews.
“With the CoC done, we could have moved on to drafting the rules of engagement, and it could have already been brought to the U.N. to talk about it.”
A first draft of the code was presented in 2017, but the process has dragged on. In November 2020, ASEAN members said they hoped to complete the code this year.
Essentially, Duterte missed a huge opportunity to be a world leader who made a difference, Cabalza said.
“Imagine if President Duterte championed and crusaded for the Hague ruling. He could have changed the world order,” he said.
Meanwhile, Filipino fishermen have borne the brunt of the Chinese presence in Manila-claimed territories in the South China Sea, as they have been driven from their traditional fishing grounds.
Besides seven reefs that Beijing has reclaimed and turned into military installations, Scarborough Shoal, which is west of the Philippine island of Luzon, has also been largely off-limits to Filipino fishermen.
A flotilla of Chinese coast guard ships and trawlers patrol and block access to the marine lagoon where Philippine fishing boats used to drop anchor during bad weather.
Around 627,000 Filipino fishermen lost their livelihood because of Chinese activities in the South China Sea, said Fernando Hicap, chairman of the fishermen’s advocacy group Pamalakaya, who cited government figures.
The last five years have been a disappointment, he said.
“How unfortunate that when the ruling came, it fell into the lap of a president who’s a lackey of China,” Hicap told BenarNews.
Fishermen in Pamalakaya’s network report that Chinese-occupied reefs where waters used to teem with fish have become barren. Hicap blames this on Chinese trawlers which can haul in several tons of fish each day.
“Now, we’re importing fish the Chinese caught in our waters,” Hicap said.
The Duterte administration’s flip-flops on foreign policy and the South China Sea issue have confused many Filipinos, said Cabalza, who previously led a department of the military-administered National Defense College of the Philippines.
“Defeatist pronouncements and the neglect of the value of the Hague ruling were the predominant narratives in the past five years,” he said.
Manila’s defense establishment, though, considers the South China Sea a security threat, as seen in white papers that spell out the Philippines’ national defense, military, and national security policies, according to Cabalza.
What the country needs is a consistent policy on national security and foreign relations that is invulnerable to the switching of political leanings of presidents and other elected leaders, he said. Such a policy would dispel concerns about the West Philippine Sea, Cabalza said, referring to Manila’s term for its EEZ and claimed territories in the South China Sea.
Still, all is not lost despite missed opportunities, analysts said, because The Hague court’s ruling carries the weight of international law.
Getting China to pull out of the waterway should never have been the focus but it should have been to delegitimize China’s standing against international law, which would have made it more vulnerable to pressure from other global powers, they said.
“It’s not so much a matter of getting back our sea,” De La Salle University’s de Castro said.
“It’s basically about ensuring that the South China Sea remains a common heritage of humanity, and to exercise our rights.”