DFA defends South China Sea policy under Duterte administration
The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said Wednesday, the first anniversary of the country's sweeping legal victory against China in the South China Sea, that further efforts in resolving Manila's territorial disputes should be done while maintaining good relations with Beijing.
Critics of President Rodrigo Duterte's "defeatist" approach to China and the South China Sea used the occasion to warn of the dangers posed by such a non-confrontational stance.
The DFA said in a statement that the Duterte administration "believes that the ongoing territorial dispute in the West Philippine Sea should further be resolved in a manner consistent with the spirit of good neighborly relations."
The Philippines calls the portion of the South China Sea that it lays claim to under the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea as the "West Philippine Sea."
The statement also defended the approach adopted by the administration in dealing with China, citing the economic benefits that have resulted from its foreign affairs policy.
"Through the adoption of positive neighborly relations, our fishermen are back exercising their livelihood in Scarborough Shoal," the statement read, adding that it has also secured more than $30 billion in financial assistance from other countries with this approach.
Scarborough Shoal, a feature rich in natural resources located less than 320 kilometers from the Philippines' Luzon island, was seized by China from the Philippines in 2012.
That led the Philippines to file a case with the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague, which ruled in Manila's favor on July 12, 2016.
The court ruled on that day that China's sweeping claims over almost the entire South China Sea have no legal basis and that China has violated the Philippines' sovereign rights in its 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone by interfering with its fishing and petroleum exploration, and by constructing artificial islands.
However, since coming to power in June last year, Duterte has set aside the arbitral ruling to avoid provoking China and to restore close economic ties.
As a result, tensions over the South China Sea have considerably eased between the Philippines and China, which had escalated under his predecessor, Benigno Aquino.
Beijing responded positively to Duterte's toned down remarks on the disputes and the ruling, offering Manila $24 billion worth of investments when Duterte visited China in October last year.
China also resumed its importation of Philippine-produced agricultural products, such as pineapples and bananas, aside from the multi-billion dollar loans it offered.
Former Solicitor General Florin Hilbay, who argued the Philippines' case before the tribunal, said in a message Wednesday that the first anniversary of the tribunal's award "marks a year of disappointment after disappointment after our victory at The Hague."
"The current administration seems to have adopted a policy of defeatism and a mindset of non-enforcement of the award. Filipinos haven't seen any forward movement for the Philippines and there has been no pushback against China's continued aggression," he said.
Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines' Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, warned of several points of no return in Duterte's policies towards China.
Batongbacal cited the environmental damage that China is causing in its reclaimed areas in the South China Sea, as well as the creeping militarization of those areas.
"If it is in respect with militarization, again we are rapidly reaching that point because I think the only thing left for the islands is, first, the activation of the air defense, and second, the basing of actual assets," he said during a forum in Manila hosted by ADR Institute, a local independent think-tank.
Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, who was also part of the Philippine delegation to The Hague, warned of resources being depleted in the areas claimed by the Philippines.
"If China completes its third naval base in the Scarborough Shoal and physically controls the South China Sea and starts extracting the gas, oil, fish and everything there, then when they exhaust it. That is the point of no return," Carpio said, adding that the Philippines would not be able to reacquire what China has taken.
Roilo Golez, a former Philippine national security adviser, told the same forum that the most worrying aspect of the president's approach is that it may lead to the Philippines' forfeiting its legal territorial claim.
"I'm worried because some people are saying that if we temporize too much on asserting our rights under the arbitral tribunal ruling, we might lose by default," he said.
In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told a press conference that bilateral ties between China and the Philippines are "recovering across the board" and both sides are putting efforts into "friendly cooperation in many fields."
The Japanese government's top spokesman reiterated Wednesday the need for the parties involved to abide by the ruling.
"We want to emphasize the importance of making efforts based on international law toward resolving disputes," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a press conference.
Suga said Japan is highly supportive of U.S. "freedom of navigation" exercises, in which U.S. vessels have sailed close to islands and reefs claimed by China in the South China Sea, but has no plans for the Japanese Self-Defense Forces to join in the exercises.