UN court decision before PH polls urged
THE DECISION of the United Nations Permanent Court of Arbitration on the Philippine case against China should come down before the May presidential election to give President Aquino time to respond to the ruling, according to a Washington-based think tank that has noted the varying stands of the candidates on the South China Sea dispute.
The Asian Maritime Transparency Initiative (Amti) said Manila’s response to any decision by the UN tribunal was “critical” to the region’s security landscape—and a lot of it rested on the shoulders of Mr. Aquino, who ends his term in June.
“Ultimately, resolving the South China Sea conundrum will require a combination of legal efforts, diplomacy, compromise and cooperation. But the implementation of the court’s decision, in the short term, is as important to the relevance of international law as it is to the interests of the Philippines.
Ensuring that implementation by allowing President Aquino enough time to develop a response to the ruling is critical,” Amti said in an analysis of the maritime row.
‘Time is of essence’
The analysis, titled “Time Is of the Essence in the South China Sea Arbitration Case,” was written by Southeast Asia experts Ernest Bower and Conor Cronin.
On Friday, Amti released its latest report on China’s rapid construction of airstrips and facilities on Panganiban (Mischief) Reef and Zamora (Subi) Reef, which are nearest to the Philippines among the disputed Spratly islands in the middle of the South China Sea.
The report emphasized that the developments on Panganiban Reef is of particular concern to the Philippines because of its proximity to Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal.
Panganiban Reef is 37.8 kilometers from Ayungin Shoal, where the Philippines maintains a small Marine garrison aboard the BRP Sierra Madre, a former Philippine Navy hospital ship that the government grounded on the shoal to mark the country’s boundary in the Spratlys.
It is 108 km from Recto (Reed) Bank, which is within the Philippines’ 370-km exclusive economic zone, and where the Philippines hopes to drill for natural gas.
Timing of decision
“The timing of the decision by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague on the Philippines’ case against China’s nine-dash-line claims has critical geopolitical implications for Asia’s security. Specifically, a decision delivered well before the Philippine presidential election this May would allow the administration of President Benigno Aquino to respond strategically and with continuity, whatever the outcome,” Amti said.
“A decision delivered after May would in effect roll the dice by putting a new leadership team in Manila in charge of managing the court’s determination,” it said.
Amti noted how President Aquino and the ruling Liberal Party were “dismayed at the prospect” that Vice President Jejomar Binay, who is leading in voter preference polls, would become the next President “because of the many ways he diverges from the current administration’s policies.”
Mixed bag of responses
In particular, it said, Binay criticized President Aquino’s handling of the territorial dispute with China soon after he severed ties with the administration last year.
“Although he has publicly affirmed that he would continue the arbitration process, it is hard to see how Binay would take up a court ruling in Manila’s favor while courting Beijing. In an interview with a Philippine radio station before his resignation, Binay pushed for closer ties with Beijing, calling for a bilateral resolution to maritime disputes and even joint ventures to explore energy resources in the South China Sea,” Amti said.
Amti said the other candidates had a “mixed bag of responses” on the Philippines’ maritime dispute with China.
The think tank observed that Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago supports the arbitration case but “diverged sharply” from other policies of President Aquino such as allowing the presence of US military forces in the Philippines.
Santiago opposes the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (Edca) with the United States, which was declared constitutional by the Supreme Court last week. “It is unclear whether Santiago would risk defying China after shirking US military support,” Amti said.
It noted Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte’s statements that he would pursue bilateral talks with China and “a less confrontational approach with China to resolve the dispute.”
Amti said administration standard-bearer Mar Roxas and Sen. Grace Poe were “the two candidates most likely to carry on Aquino’s course and follow up the court’s decision with actions supporting the authority of international convention.”
But Poe is struggling to stay in the presidential race with challenges to her citizenship and residency in the Philippines, while Roxas is polling “in the middle of the pack,” the think tank said.
Ample time to respond
“If the court hopes to pass down a decision that will not be thoroughly ignored as realpolitik overtakes it, it needs to ensure that the Aquino administration has ample time to institutionalize its approach. Since there are no formal enforcement mechanisms for the decision, the messaging from the Philippines and the international community is of greater import,” Amti said.
“If the decision is released and a new administration ignores it to pursue the bilateral negotiations that China has demanded all along, it decreases the incentive for other small nations to turn to international law and arbitration. If the Philippines didn’t get anything out of pursuing its case, why should Vietnam or Malaysia follow in the future? As other avenues for fair resolution of disputes are shut, states will increasingly turn to military buildup in order to defend their interests with force,” it said.