A ruling by an international arbitral tribunal will in no way solve a bitter maritime dispute between the Philippines and China in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), according to two of the country’s former senior diplomats.
This assertion mirrored the ex-envoys’ backing of the position of the Duterte administration to resume the Philippines’ disrupted bilateral negotiations with China.
After all, the former senior diplomats said, the Philippines will not necessarily enjoy the expected favorable decision of the court.
Rosario Manalo, chairman of the High-Level Task Force on the Asean Charter and former Foreign Affairs undersecretary for international economic relations, noted that it is already late for the Philippines to compete its claim as China has already built artificial islands suitable for military use in the disputed waters.
“It’s a little bit too late because kinain na lahat ng mga [Chinese] lahat ng teritoryo. Hindi ba nagbi-build na siya [It’s a little bit too late because the Chinese have already eaten up all the territories. They have their building activities, right]?” she said in a recent chat.
Manalo explained that “under international law, the country who has physical control is the owner.”
She suggested that the two competing countries could undertake joint exploration and “share the fruits of the sea” to ease tensions in the South China Sea (West Philippine Sea).
The West Philippine Sea is believed to potentially hold huge deposits of oil and gas.
It is also a rich fishing ground and a vital maritime route, where $5 trillion of annual global trade passes through.
China, according to Manalo, will agree to joint exploration.
“They will because they have to. Otherwise, matitignan siya ng buong mundo na, ‘Ano ka? Walang hiya ka talaga, ’no?’ [Otherwise, the world will see them as, ‘What are you? Are you shameless’]?” she said.
China claims nearly 90 percent of the sea though its nine-dash line, while the Philippines insists its rights to areas within 200 nautical miles of its coastline, under the terms of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos).
Manila in 2013 sought the ruling of The Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) to clarify its maritime rights.
But Manalo said the award will have no bearing if Beijing will not recognize the decision.
The only way to save the Philippines’ claims, she said, is to diplomatically talk with China and ask them: “How we can cooperate? If you keep setting plots against us, you are in effect hostile to us. Is that the demonstration of friendship on your side?”
Manalo saw no need for the United States to join the negotiations as it does not have any claim in the contested territories in the South China Sea.
“Hindi puwede ang multilateral talks… Ano ang keber ng United States sa atin? May posisyon ba sila sa teritoryo natin at China? Tayo lang at ang China ang may problema dun eh [We cannot pursue multilateral talks… What’s the interest of the United States in us? Do they have any claim to the Philippines or China’s territory? The problem is only between us and China],” the diplomat said.
Lauro Baja, former Foreign Affairs undersecretary for policy and Philippine Permanent Representative to the United Nations, clarified that engaging in bilateral talks with China will not harm the Philippine case in the tribunal.
“You can’t resolve an issue without talking to each other,” he said in a separate interview.
“I have yet to hear an excuse or justification that going bilateral will prejudice our case in the panel. How? These judges are statesmen, they are learned. They know how to distinguish rhetoric, what is legal or what is reality.”
Baja noted that the question of territorial integrity or maritime entitlement will not be solved solely on legal ground.
“What the department [Foreign Affairs] or the Philippines may have missed is that they relied too much on the legal angle,” he said. “Second, we relied too much on the panel and we put all our eggs in the panel. We should have had more foresight like the others.”
Baja dismissed a recommendation of Ernest Bower, senior adviser to the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, to elevate the Philippine case to the United Nations Security Council if China will not abide by the court ruling.
He also explained that China, as permanent member of the Security Council, will surely veto such move.
Therefore, Baja said, nothing will happen unless Beijing is inhibited by the Security Council.
“That’s suntok sa buwan [far-fetched]. Before you take a first step in the Security Council, you must have some informal informant. And in that first step, China will kill it,” he added, laughing.
“Of course, you can go to the UN General Assembly. But all you can gain there without manifestation of specifics is again a moral support to our position,” Baja said.
“But as I said, on matters of territorial integrity and sovereignty and maritime entitlements, there is no such thing as moral victories.”