Is Duterte squandering The Hague victory to appease Beijing?

In the days leading up to the fifth anniversary on Monday of The Hague’s 2016 ruling that rejected China’s historical claim to most of the disputed South China Sea, the Philippines’ often abrasive Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr sounded celebratory, hailing the occasion as “a milestone in the corpus of international law”.

“The Philippines is proud to have contributed to the international rules-based order,” he said of Manila’s role in challenging Beijing before the Permanent Court of Arbitration.

“Manila certainly missed a chance to echo a consistent unified narrative on its claims … which Beijing saw as an opportunity to flex its muscles and build the largest coast guard and maritime militia for its strategic advantage,” said Chester Cabalza, president and founder of Manila-based think-tank International Development and Security Cooperation.

Collin Koh, research fellow at Singapore’s Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, said the Duterte administration “squandered the opportunity” in emphasising the significance of the decision “whether it ought to be doing it alone or in concert with like-minded external parties” such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the United States.

‘Victory Day’

It was in July 2016, less than two weeks into the Duterte presidency when The Hague tribunal concluded, based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), that China’s assertion of historic rights within its “nine-dash line” and maritime entitlements over most of the South China Sea had “no legal basis”.

The ruling also affirmed the Philippines’ jurisdiction over its exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which stretches 200 nautical miles (370km) from its coast. As such, China’s fishing activities and construction of artificial islands within that area were deemed an infringement of Philippine sovereign rights. The Philippines refers to that particular area as the West Philippine Sea.

Moreover, the court ruled that of all disputed South China Sea features – even those controlled by Beijing – none were considered “habitable” and able to sustain economic activity in its original form, and therefore were not entitled to an EEZ – thus clearly falling within Philippine EEZ.To commemorate the ruling this year, Philippine Senator Risa Hontiveros has proposed that the country declare July 12 as the National West Philippine Sea Victory Day.

“Even when the Philippines was going against the Goliath that is China, he pursued the case merely on the principle that it was the right thing to do.”

Protests are also expected on Monday outside China’s diplomatic mission in Manila.

China has said repeatedly that it does not recognise the 2016 ruling, and has continued to expand its artificial islands in Mischief Reef, as well as in Scarborough Shoal, which Manila lost to Beijing in 2012.

Duterte’s gambit

Campaigning for the presidency in 2016, Duterte charmed voters with his hardline stance on China. In one campaign swing, he promised to ride a jet ski in the South China Sea and challenge the Chinese incursion in Philippine waters. He said he always wanted to die a hero.

But as soon as he became president, Duterte started to backpedal on his promises, saying the Philippines cannot afford to take on China because a confrontation would only lead to bloodshed.

In a stunning admission in June 2019, Duterte said he had reached a verbal agreement with Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2016 allowing China to fish within the Philippines’s EEZ, despite a constitutional mandate that the state must protect its marine wealth, including its EEZ, and “reserve its use and enjoyment exclusively to Filipino citizens”.

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