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2 years after Hague ruling: Preserving rules-based order in South China Sea

/ 12:28 PM July 13, 2018
Chines Coast Guard vessel in South China Sea - 23 Sept 2015

In this photo, taken Sept. 23, 2015, a Chinese Coast Guard boat sprays a water cannon at Filipino fishermen near Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea. China on Friday, May 19, 2017, said it reached agreement with the 10 countries of the Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN) on the rough outline of a legally binding code of conduct designed to prevent clashes in the strategic South China Sea. (Photo by RENATO ETAC via AP)

The Philippine government should take at least three crucial courses of action if it wants to preserve the rules-based order at sea, a marine expert said Thursday.

“Any change in our course must start somewhere. It should begin with the change in the soft and submissive policy and replacement with a more active and protective one. It does not entail a shift to an aggressive and war-mongering tone, but simply a more dignified one based on self-respect and equal footing,” said Dr. Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, in a forum marking the second anniversary of the Philippines’ legal victory in the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA).

In the July 12, 2016 ruling on a case brought by the Philippines, the PCA in The Hague declared invalid China’s claim to nearly the entire South China Sea.

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But two years later, China has not changed its behavior and had actually been more aggressive in its military build-up in the disputed waters.

Batongbacal said the actions he is suggesting do not involve the enforcement of the landmark ruling nor radical changes in the current foreign policy, but it would be clear signals to both the Philippines and China that they are willing to maintain the rules-based order in the South China Sea (SCS).

Batongbacal says the Philippines should take the following actions:

(1) Demand that China cooperate in the restoration of Scarborough Shoal.

[This] can be done by supporting a Philippine-led, designed, and implemented coral re-planting and rehabilitation program to make up for the massive damage inflicted by Chinese fishermen cutting up the reef to extract giant clams for use as carving materials. More than 550 hectares of damage are visible from satellite photographs of the area; using the valuation of Tubbataha Reef damage in 2013 of PHP 24,000/sq. m. as an example, that damage is worth at least 132 Billion Pesos. To date, China has done nothing to make up for this massive damage, even though it has recognized too late the need to stop its fishermen from engaging in this destructive activity…It would entail a reaffirmation of very important core commitments of the two countries under UNCLOS, and therefore contribute to the maintenance of the rules-based order for the oceans.

(2) Lift the moratorium on petroleum service contracts in the West Philippine Sea.

Proceed post-haste with long-delayed exploration in the uncontested areas, particularly between the edge of the 9DL(nine-dash line) and the coast of Palawan…The government should not lose sight of the fact that it is still a sovereign and independent State with an inherent right to develop and benefit from its own natural resources. This is a fundamental principle upon which our foreign policy vis-à-vis these issues must be built. This is the key element that must be present in all our policies and actions on the WPS (West Philippine Sea). This will also more strongly demonstrate that the country will not endanger its own economic and energy security for the sake of showing deference and avoiding even the slightest ire of its powerful neighbor.

(3) Demand an unequivocal commitment from China to remove/not install medium and long-range weapons and refrain from basing long-range combat aircraft in its military bases in the South China Sea, most especially in Mischief Reef (Panganiban Reef), which is within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone and close to Philippine territory and airspace.

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Removal of their potential to directly threaten freedom of navigation will also remove the necessity for external powers to constantly remind Beijing of their objections through FONOPs (freedom of navigation operations). This would also demonstrate China’s sincerity and re-establish self-restraint, contribute to rebuilding trust, and at least bring back a minimum sense of equality, mutuality, and reciprocity in the posture of the respective parties in the SCS.”

‘Degenerated’

Batongbacal said it is a challenge for the Philippines “to show some spine” in its current foreign policy and to prove that they are for the interests of the Filipinos and not China.

It is also a challenge for China “to demonstrate sincerity and self-restraint necessary to prove that it is not on a path toward aggressive, belligerent regional domination.”

Last month’s media reports of Chinese fishermen taking the Filipino fishers’ best catch in Scarborough Shoal was just one of the indicators that the rules-based order at sea has degenerated within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, Batongbacal said.

“The government has glossed over the incident and attempted to quell criticism of the practice by portraying it as ’barter’ and as resulting from language difficulties, but this thinly-disguised excuse crumbles before the first-hand accounts and common experiences of fishermen from Pangasinan to Quezon,” he said.

It has already become “noticeable” that the Philippine government has been increasingly restating China’s official positions on various issues, Batongbacal said.

For example, the government has been “consistent” in playing down China’s military build-up in the West Philippine Sea, said Batongbacal.

“Since last year, faced with photographic evidence of electronic warfare equipment, confirmed reports of missile installations, and prospects of complete operational status of fighter and bomber wings in the future, the government gleefully asserts that Filipinos should not worry because any military assets in the islands would be aimed at its treaty ally the US, not us,” he explained.

While the current foreign policy has reduced the direct tensions between the Philippines and China, Batongbacal said it comes at the “enormous cost of loss of sovereign rights” and has only created a “fragile peace.”

“While it may have created a sense of peace, it is a fragile peace, established and maintained by a sense of fear and submissiveness, and dependent on silence and subservience to the revisionist narrative of the powerful.  A far cry from the advocacy of “Right over Might” just two years ago,” he said.  /muf

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TAGS: China, Jay Batongbacal, Permanent Court of Arbitration, Philippines, South China Sea, The Hague, West Philippine Sea
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