FOR starters, let’s be clear about one thing: Most nations would use force to defend their territory. So, when Chinese President Xi Jinping talked of war if the Philippines conducted activities that intrude into what China claims as its sovereign waters, it can be seen as giving fair warning.
Which is what the Philippines did six years ago, and not in a closed-door conference with a visiting leader, but in the most important policy speech delivered every year.
In July 2011, then-President Benigno Aquino 3rd said in his second State of the Nation Address no less: “We do not wish to increase tensions with anyone, but we must let the world know that we are ready to protect what is ours.”
To thunderous applause in the cavernous Batasan hall, Aquino further declared: “There was a time when we couldn’t appropriately respond to threats in our own backyard. Now, our message to the world is clear: What is ours is ours; setting foot on Recto Bank is no different from setting foot on Recto Avenue.”
At the time, there was a recent incident in Recto Bank, internationally known as Reed Bank, when Chinese vessels confronted an oil exploration ship authorized by the Philippines, which then sent two military planes in response.
Aquino also talked of getting new weaponry in addition to a US Coast Guard Hamilton-class cutter just handed down from America: “We may acquire more vessels in the future, these in addition to helicopters and patrol craft.”
The Presidential Management Staff report accompanying Aquino’s Congress speech added that “a joint maritime force (sea-air) is being restructured to carry out missions in the West Philippines Sea to protect vital resources and sea exploration activities. At the same time, initiatives are being made to revive the Air Defense Organization focused on the airspace of priority areas in western Philippines.”
Imagine if then-Chinese President Hu Jintao made similar statements to thunderous acclaim at the National People’s Congress.
Many Filipinos, of course, will insist that we have the right to use force against foreign interlopers in what we consider our territory. But then, rival claimants can make the same argument, right?
In court we trust
The difference between Aquino and Xi’s statements, China critics may argue, is that the latter was made in reference to the Philippines exercising its sovereign maritime rights as affirmed by the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling in The Hague last July.
The PCA declared that under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), whose provisions both China and the Philippines accepted by ratification, Beijing’s so-called “nine-dash line” claim over most of the South China Sea, is invalid.
On the other hand, the court affirmed our sovereign rights over our exclusive economic zone, 200 nautical miles from our territorial baseline and extended continental shelf, 320 nm out. A country has exclusive rights to exploit resources in the waters and seabed of its EEZ, and over the seabed alone in its ECS.
Hence, Associate Justice Antonio Carpio and former Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario want President Rodrigo Duterte, who recounted Xi’s war talk last week, to take China to court for allegedly threatening war against the Philippines’ exercise of sovereign rights stipulated in UNCLOS and backed by the July 2016 arbitral decision.
So, is that the way to get China to work with us in sorting out our territorial issues? Go to court again, even if we don’t have the guns or the international backing to enforce any ruling in our favor?
Or is it better to do as we have done in the past month: Take a conciliatory approach both in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in late April, and in bilateral talks in Beijing on our maritime disputes.
Here’s what Asean and the Philippines has gotten so far with their friendly approach: agreement on the framework for a binding Asean-China Code of Conduct on disputed areas in the South China Sea, and the terms of reference for maritime security and cooperation between China and the Philippines.
The right way to secure our nation
Will going to international court top that? Or will it just undo all that progress?
In fact, after initially criticizing President Duterte last year for not pressing Beijing on the Hague decision, international experts came around and admitted that his fence-mending manner actually got China to implement key provisions of the ruling, including letting Filipino fishermen back to Scarborough Shoal, off limits since Beijing wrested it from Philippine control in 2012.
To be sure, we don’t know how Duterte’s friendly approach would turn out for the Philippines in the long run. But we don’t have to guess what Aquino’s tough talk and legal action got us.
Since his 2011 SONA about defending Recto Bank, we lost Scarborough Shoal, and lost out on Chinese aid and investment pouring into the rest of Asean. We shamed China in The Hague, but no nation cared to join us in enforcing the PCA decision.
Even the Seventh Fleet would not fight at our side unless we were suicidal enough to provoke the People’s Liberation Army to attack us. (When President-elect Duterte asked if America would defend us, then-Ambassador Philip Goldberg said: “Only if you are attacked.”)
Even worse, after Aquino opened the archipelago to massive US military deployment with access to bases under his Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement with Washington, the looming American threat to vital shipping in the South China Sea, including 80 percent of Chinese oil imports, led Beijing to build military-capable installations on artificial islands for the protection of its sea lanes.
Now, how is all that supposed to be better than President Duterte’s independent foreign policy, yielding tens of billions of dollars in assistance and investment, plus important agreements for Asean and the Philippines?
It may look like capitulation to critics, but the right way to go for the Philippines may just be to bide our time and build our economy and military, so that several years from now, we are truly ready to protect what is ours.