PH not vulnerable to China military attack, says former SolGen
The Philippines does not have to go to war and it will not be vulnerable to an attack by China even if Filipinos assert their rights in the West Philippine Sea, according to former Solicitor General Florin Hilbay.
The Philippines, however, faces the risk of losing its claims in the sea altogether by doing nothing, Hilbay said on Tuesday.
“The President keeps on saying he does not want to go to war. But neither is China. The President is sounding the alarm, but it seems he is the only one alarmed by it,” he said.
Not vulnerable to attack
Despite having a weak military, the Philippines cannot be considered vulnerable to foreign aggression, Hilbay said.
He cited the Philippines’ Mutual Defense Treaty with the United States, under which the two countries were obligated to come to each other’s aid in the event of invasion.
There is also the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (Edca) between the two countries that allows the United States access to Philippine military bases, where it can preposition troops and equipment, he said.
“Besides, it is not that easy for China to go to war. The West Philippine Sea is a trade route that involves around $5-trillion business in the Southeast Asian region,” he said, using the local name of the waters within the Philippines 370-kilometer exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea.
Countries can assert their territorial integrity without going to war, he said, citing the “good example” set by Vietnam, which has managed to continually protest the incursions of China into Vietnamese waters despite being under “existential threat.”
Hilbay was the lead lawyer on the legal team that successfully argued the Philippines’ challenge to China’s claim to nearly all of the South China Sea in the UN-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.
The tribunal ruled in July 2016 that China’s sweeping claim had no basis in international law and that the Philippines had sovereign rights to fish and explore for resources in the West Philippine Sea.
But President Rodrigo Duterte, who came to power shortly before the decision came down, set the ruling aside, preferring to mend fences with China and woo it for aid, loans and investments.
China has plied the Duterte administration with aid and pledges of investment and proceeded to build military bases on Philippine reefs in the Spratly archipelago that it has seized and turned into artificial islands.
Acting Chief Justice Antonio Carpio, also a member of the Philippine team in the Hague arbitration, has been prodding the President to protest China’s militarization of the West Philippine Sea, but the President has refused, claiming that insisting on sovereignty could lead to a war that he could not win.
Hilbay expressed disgust at the Duterte administration’s setting aside the Philippines’ Hague victory, especially criticizing the President’s decision to go into joint exploration and development with China in the West Philippine Sea.
The former top government lawyer called the proposal “false benevolence of a thief.”
“Only a thief would ask and agree to share with another’s property,” Hilbay said.
By agreeing to joint development with China, he said, the Philippines had effectively waived its right to assert its sovereignty in the West Philippine Sea.
Hilbay lamented how the situation in the West Philippine Sea had shifted from a “rights regime” to a “permission regime.”
“Before, our fishermen were free to use the [West Philippine Sea] as their fishing ground and assert their right over it; now, they have to ask permission from the Chinese to be able to fish [there],” he said.
According to Hilbay, Filipinos should apply to the maritime dispute the “whole nation” approach, where policies are made based on the collective decisions of the different government agencies.
“The President may be the chief architect, but he is not the entire construction company,” he said.
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