Sea dispute with China tested Philippines’ resolve

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The passing year put to test the resolve of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) to pursue the government’s arbitration case against China while continuing to develop relations with Asia’s economic tiger, and at the same time assess its strategic alliance with the United States.

The dispute over the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) has long been simmering but it wasn’t until two years ago that the world took notice of the newest potential military flashpoint in Southeast Asia. The naval standoff between the Philippines and China at the disputed Scarborough (Panatag) Shoal shook the otherwise friendly relations between Beijing and Manila.

In March this year, the Philippines submitted its Memorial, an annex of evidences, to the five-member arbitral tribunal in the United Nations-backed International Tribunal of the Law of the Sea (Itlos) to invalidate China’s claim in the West Philippine Sea that stretches as far as the territories of the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan and Brunei Darussalam.

China was given until December 15 this year to submit its counter-Memorial, but Beijing has refused to take part in the process, insisting that it will only negotiate with claimant-countries bilaterally. It also accused the Philippines of violating international maritime laws, as well as the 2002 Declaration on the Code of Conduct (DOC), which pointed out that disputes in the region should be resolved through bilateral negotiations.


It also warned other countries not to interfere in the regional dispute.

Amid all of these, the Foreign Affairs department tried to cultivate a relationship with a regional giant that has grown sour and an alliance with a global superpower that continues to be challenged by issues such as the killing of Jeffrey “Jennifer” Laude in Olongapo City allegedly by US Marine Private First Class Joseph Scott Pemberton.

The case, which is reminiscent of the rape case that involved Lance Corporal Daniel Smith, again examined the 1999 Visiting Forces Agreement between the two countries. Militant groups castigated the department for its failure to secure the physical custody of Pemberton, who is now languishing in a makeshift detention cell inside Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City.

Although he is inside a Philippine military camp, US Ambassador to Manila Philip Goldberg insisted that custody over Pemberton remains with the US until the “completion of all judicial proceedings.” The Olongapo Regional Trial Court filed murder raps against the US serviceman early this month.

The Foreign Affairs department tried to seek custody of Pemberton but its bid was rejected on the same day the warrant was issued. It, however, said that the jurisdiction of the case will remain with the Philippines because Pemberton will be tried by “Philippine courts under Philippine laws.”

Pemberton’s was one of the troops who took part in the Amphibious Landing Exercises (Phiblex), a joint annual military training under the VFA, the same agreement that anti-US groups are now asking to be abrogated.

The Phiblex is also being seen as a preparation for the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which the Philippines signed in April before the official state visit of US President Barack Obama. The EDCA, which will increase US military presence in the country and is now a subject of review by the Supreme Court, was agreed upon amid increasing tensions with Beijing, which has begun massive reclamation projects in the West Philippine Sea, particularly in five Philippine-claimed reefs—Mabini (Johnson South) Reef, Malvar (Eldad) Reef, Calderon (Cuarteron) Reef, Burgos (Gaven) Reef and Kennan (Hughes) Reef—as well as an oil drilling operation near Vietnam.

Relations between the Philippines and China have suffered tremendously in the past two years because of the sea disputes. The US has shown concern because it has always maintained a “strategic interest” in seeing peace and stability in the region, a vital waterway that holds more than $5 billion of world trade annually, $1 billion of which belongs to the United States.

It remains to be seen, however, how the more important relationship between the US and China will eclipse Washington’s promises to the Philippines, which has held strong to a decades-old treaty, the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), in case an armed conflict with China arises.

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