By ALFRED GABOT
Editor in Chief
WASHINGTON/MANILA/BEIJING – Tension heated again between the United States and the Philippines against China on the fifth anniversary of the arbitral ruling won by Manila repudiating Beijing’s territorial nine-dash-line claims of almost the entire South China Sea.
This as the United States, through Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, repeated a warning to China that an armed attack on Philippine armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft in the South China Sea would invoke American commitments under a 1951 U.S.-Philippines mutual defense treaty.
In a related development, the United States, the European Union (EU), and several other western countries have reaffirmed their support to the Philippines’ claim in the South China Sea on the fifth anniversary of The Hague’s Arbitral Tribunal ruling.
“The United States reaffirms its July 13, 2020 policy regarding maritime claims in the South China Sea,” Blinken said in a statement from Washington. “We also reaffirm that an armed attack on Philippine armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft in the South China Sea would invoke U.S. mutual defense commitments under Article IV of the 1951 U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty,” Blinken added.
China, which continues to ignore the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration and instead reclaimed many islands, reefs and shoals and built airports, seaports and military installations on them. China is claiming almost the entire South China Sea under its so-called 9-dash-line, which is also contested by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.
President Rodrigo Duterte, meanwhile, came under fire from various groups led by Vice President Leni Robredo, former Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto del Rosario and retired Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, for allegedly ignoring the arbitral victory by almost kowtowing to China.
Duterte has likewise been consistently criticized for his amicable attitude towards China, despite its numerous transgressions in the West Philippine Sea which prompted the Department of Foreign Affairs to file scores of diplomatic protests over swarming of China warships and militia vessels and harrassment of Filipino fishermen in the contested waters..
Duterte, however, stressed that he did his best to uphold the arbitrary ruling which he earlier described as mere scrap of paper that he will throw in the wastebasket. In the 2016 presidential campaign, then Davao City Mayor Duterte vowed to travel to the West Philippine via jetski and raise the Philippine flag to affirm the country’s ownership of the territory.
The Duterte administration has done all that it could to assert the Philippines’ rights in the West Philippine Sea (WPS), Malacañang added.
The President, in a pivot to China, pursued friendlier ties with the country despite its repeated incursions in the West Philippine Sea in exchange for investments, infrastructure funding and most recently, vaccine supply. Many investments, however, failed to materialize, according to experts.
“We have done all that we could, given the absence po of an enforcement mechanism under international law,” presidential spokesman Harry Roque said in a press briefing.
He said Duterte affirmed the 2016 PCA verdict against China’s expansive maritime claims in the South China Sea during the 75th Session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York on Sept. 23, 2020.
Robredo lamented “missed opportunities” after the ruling. “Since then, national leadership has yet to fully flex the ruling as an instrument to pursue our national interests, failing to invoke it in strong enough terms in the forums that matter most. Our fisherfolk remain unable to enter areas that have been the source of livelihood for generations of Filipinos,” Robredo said in a statement.
“Alliances that could have been strengthened were allowed to erode, while those who bully their way into our waters have been treated with deference, and at times, subservience. The dream of a regional architecture founded on respect and mutual prosperity has become even more elusive,” Robredo added.
Del Rosario said Duterte “betrayed” his constitutional duty to uphold the national interests of the country by setting aside the arbitral ruling that favored the Philippines’ claim on the West Philippine Sea (WPS).
Roque, however, shrugged off the remark of del Rosario who, he said, was the one who betrayed the country and not the President for giving away Scarborough Shoal to China.
The Vice President added that the arbitral ruling “cannot be erased from the history books, and cannot be denied despite the unending lies spewed forth by a formidable machinery of disinformation.”
“Today’s commemoration is a reminder, a challenge, and a promise: That if only we can remember, if only we can unite, if only we can rediscover our spirit and once again stand for what is right— we will find, beneath the rubble of cowardice and neglect, our courage, our dignity, and our national pride,” she said.
“Filing the case before the tribunal— standing up for what is right, against the economic and military might of a world power— yielded the admiration and respect of the entire world.”
In a statement in Washington, the US Secretary of State noted that the Arbitral Tribunal delivered a “unanimous and enduring decision” rejecting China’s maritime claims as having “no basis on international law.”
“The Tribunal stated that the PRC (People’s Republic of China) has no lawful claim to the area determined by the Arbitral Tribunal to be part of the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone and continental shelf. The PRC and the Philippines, pursuant to their treaty obligations under the Law of the Sea Convention, are legally bound to comply with this decision,” Blinken said.
He noted that “nowhere is the rules-based maritime order under greater threat than in the South China Sea.”
“The PRC continues to coerce and intimidate Southeast Asian coastal states, threatening freedom of navigation in this critical global throughway,” Blinken said.
He called on China to abide by its obligations under international law, to cease “provocative behavior,” and to reassure that China is committed to rules-based maritime order “that respects the rights of all countries, big and small.”
In a separate statement, Global Affairs Canada — in charge of Canada’s diplomatic relations — reiterated the need for all parties involved to comply with the decision of the Arbitral Tribunal five years ago.
“It is imperative that all parties in the region demonstrate restraint and avoid taking action unilaterally, as this would exacerbate tensions and threaten regional stability,” Global Affairs Canada said.
Canada is “particularly concerned” by China’s “escalatory and destabilizing actions in the East and South China Seas.”
These actions include the “militarization of disputed features and the use of naval, coast guard, and maritime militia vessels to intimidate and threaten the ships of other states.”
“We call on all states, including China, to live up to previous commitments made in the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of the Parties in the South China Sea,” Global Affairs Canada said.
Several western diplomats also expressed their support for the Philippines and the Hague Arbitral Tribunal ruling five years ago on Twitter.
The delegation of the EU in the Philippines said that what happens in the South China Sea “matters to the EU, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), and the whole world.”
“We further reaffirmed the importance of maintaining and promoting peace, security, stability, safety, and the right of freedom of navigation in and overflight above the South China Sea, as well as the peaceful resolution of disputes, in accordance with international law, in particular UNCLOS,” the EU delegation said.
Anke Reiffenstuel, German Ambassador to the Philippines, said that the Philippines “wrote history” with the Hague Arbitration Tribunal ruling.
“The rules-based maritime order laid down in UNCLOS ensures international cooperation and stability,” Reiffenstuel said.