The tribunal of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea finally, after one year, issued its decision affirming that the islands being disputed by China and the Philippines, namely the Scarborough Shoal and Spratly Islands, are within the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines. It also ruled that China violated Philippine sovereign rights when it prevented Filipino fishermen from fishing in the area, created artificial islands, and did not act to prevent Chinese fishermen from fishing in the area. It also called the attention of China for the harm it caused on the marine environment through its large-scale land reclamation and creation of artificial islands in the Spratly Islands and for allowing Chinese fishermen to harvest endangered marine species, such as giant clams, corals, and sea turtles in the area.
The decision was much expected. The Philippines was confident that the disputed islands were well within its economic zone that is why it submitted the matter for arbitration. China, on the other hand, knew that its claim stood on weak ground that is why it refused to recognize the jurisdiction of the Tribunal and did not participate in the proceedings, although it submitted its position paper. The US took advantage of the dispute and the weaknesses militarily of the Philippines by pretending that it was protecting the interest of the Philippines, while making no firm, categorical affirmation of Philippine claims, to iron out a deal to station US troops in the Philippines, as part of its projection of its military hegemony in Asia.
Now that the decision is out, the parties to the dispute are at a fix. China called the decision as ‘null and void’ and accused the Tribunal of being ‘manipulated’. It went to the extent of accusing the Philippines of bribing the judges. Well, the Philippines has no money to build a decent warship, how could it bribe judges of a tribunal arbitrating on an international dispute?
China, as expected, has threatened to enforce its claims militarily. It could do so and the Philippines would not be able to present a credible challenge to it militarily. But with the decision out, it could no longer claim that its military build up in the area is defensive. Much less believable is its claim that its aim is “to turn the South China Sea into a sea of peace, friendship, and cooperation.” By enforcing its claim militarily on an area legally belonging to the Philippines, China exposes itself as an aggressor and a bully.
The US could no longer evade the question asked by President Duterte last June: “Are you with us or are you not with us?” This would put to the test the defense treaties entered into by the US and the Philippines. When President Duterte asked US Ambassador Philip Goldberg that question, the latter reportedly replied, “Only if you are attacked.” Now that the disputed islands are legally Philippine territory, any attack by Chinese vessels on Philippine boats, military or civilian, in the area would already constitute an attack on the country. What will the US do?
Of course the US would not go to war against China in defense of the Philippines. China is much more valuable to the US than the Philippines. China is the biggest holder of US Treasury bonds outside the US. It hosts a lot of US multinational corporations. Added to this, most of the manufacturing processes of US companies are outsourced to China. This unwillingness of the US to come to the aid of the Philippines would expose the US-RP defense treaties for what these really are: one-sided, favorable to the US and detrimental to the interests of the Philippines.
The Duterte administration is also in a fix. What it does at this juncture would determine how it wants to be remembered in history. Does it want to be like its predecessors who have been known to kowtow mainly to US interests, to the detriment of the nation? Does it want to be remembered as the administration that gave away what is rightfully the nation’s when confronted by a military power, in this case China, that is way stronger than the country’s armed forces?
Does it want to be remembered as the administration that stood, on principled ground, for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Philippines?
Sure, the Philippines could not stand up to China militarily. But it does not mean that the country should just give away its rightful claim just because it could not go to war against China. The Duterte administration could use political, diplomatic, economic, and moral means to advance the nation’s rightful, legal claim.
China would not hand over the Scarborough Shoal and disputed Spratly Islands readily. The Philippine government could not go to the disputed area and plant its flag just like that.
However, the Philippines could stand firm in defense of its sovereignty, territorial integrity, and its right as a nation. Even if the Philippines could not back up its rightful, legal claim with military force, the Duterte administration could use political, economic, and moral suasion.
Let the world know that the Philippines would not bow down to a military might. Let China expose itself before the international community. Let history judge the actions of the Chinese and Philippine governments.