'After arbitration, it's now the game of the diplomats'
MANILA - Filipinos online and offline cheered the Permanent Court of Arbitration's (PCA) decision on the West Philippine Sea. Experts, however, echo the call for restraint as the country now confronts the reality of enforcing the decision through diplomacy.
International law professor and now Kabayan Party-list Rep. Harry Roque said this means ordinary Filipinos can now fish and explore those disputed waters.
"Ibig sabihin nito mayroon na tayong mga karagatan na pupuwede pangisdaan, pwede mangalap ng langis, natural gas," he said.
"Naririnig ko lang na ang Reed Bank langis ay 5x ng langis ng Saudi Arabia. Di ko alam kung totoo yan pero may ganyang expectation, na baka darating ang panahon matatamasa rin natin ang resulta ng tanging yaman, at sana ito na ang maging dahilan para maihaon sa hirap ang lahat ng Pilipino."
Roque cannot overemphasize the importance of the recognition of the fishing rights.
"This is the most important and the most humane issue that the tribunal was asked to resolve. I'm very the happy tribunal seized on the moment and ruled in favor of the socio-economic rights of our people to pursue their livelihood," he said.
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Former Solicitor General Florin Hilbay, who was part of the legal team that won the arbitration case, explained that the victory ends the legal phase of the dispute and paves the way for diplomacy which is the next phase.
"We've used the metaphor of a basketball game. This is a game that will take some time. Second quarter is arbitration proceedings. Arbitration proceedings are over. We're now moving towards the game of the diplomats. We have a new administration who can take advantage of this legal decision so they can create their own rhetorical platform. The end goal is for the Philippines to be able to effectively assert its maritime entitlements, that is the ultimate objective," said Hilbay.
Former Solicitor General, now-Supreme Court Associate Justice Francis Jardeleza, who also was part of the legal team, admitted they knew of the difficulties of enforcing a favorable ruling but they also knew it would help in any diplomatic effort.
"There is no such thing as an international policeman, we knew from the start. We may not be able to enforce it. We have a very clear legal victory which will be the bridge to arm our negotiators in their coming talks with the other side," he said.
For now, Jardeleza said government will have to work with local government units to guide fishermen on how to exercise those rights to fish.
"Ang ating pamahalaan sa ngayon marami na naguusap sa sandatahang lakas. Mas mahalaga sa lokal na pamahalaan, sila ay nakikipagugnayan sa mga mangingisda... Pinaguusapan kung ano yung mga safeguards para di mapasama."
Roque said the decision paves the way for the Philippines to have more weight when it negotiates with China. But make no mistake, this will have to be resolved through diplomacy, he added.
"The total effect of this arbitration is it has made us a co-equal party to negotiate with China. Dati rati, bakit naman tayo papayag sa bilateral negotiation gayong may baril sa ating ulo? Tingin ko itong desisyon na ito, tinanggal yang baril na yan, binigyan tayo ng leverage, ni-narrow down ang issue," he explained.
Roque, meanwhile, lauded the Philippine government's sober response, stressing the importance of not gloating.
"That is the correct approach," Roque said. "Di pwede sabihin, 'Beh buti nga panalo kami,' dahil di pa tapos yung hidwaan. Maski nanalo tayo, paguusapan pa rin ang pingaagawang isla.
"Imagine how angry Chinese public must be. Pabayaan muna natin sila humupa... I don't think we should exacerbate matters further. Let's be responsible. Let's not be inflammatory even on the Internet. Let's persuade the Chinese that the civilized way to go is to comply with the ruling of the tribunal."
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Roque now added the importance of appointing a competent negotiator.
Jardeleza said government can also engage in backchannel talks as well as other forms of diplomacy. "We leave it to the expertise and wisdom of our negotiators," he said.
In the meantime, Roque believes government should work to declare the West Philippine Sea as a reserve pending final resolution of the dispute through diplomacy.
"Back to the negotiating table. I'm now thinking of possible policy initiatives. Una ko pinagaaralan habang di pa natin nauumpisahan ang pruseso ng negotiations, siguro imumungkahi ko na magkaroon tayo ng deklarasyon, Spratlys, Scarborough will be declared as maritime reserve recognized by all countries as such para mapangalagaan ang tanging yaman ng area at kalikasan," he said.
"The decision was also an environmental decision. The tribunal was very clear China violated environmental law when its fishermen were caught in possession of protected species. Isa po iyan sa naiisip nating panukalang batas na sana suportahan ng mas malakihang international community," he added.
It's a process that Roque said should involve lawmakers.
Roque also believes government can now go ahead with the development of the Spratlys.
"Another bill I'm contemplating is establishing Spratlys Development Council Authority patterned after SBMA or Clark. Kinakailangan meron nang namumuno sa pruseso paano natin i-explore at exploit Spratlys," he said.
IMPACT ON CHINA
Hilbay, meanwhile, also talked about the impact on China if it disobeys.
"The challenge is different and a bit more complicated," he admitted. "This will require the support of other countries. There's such a thing as reputational harm or reputational cost. There will be a lot of pressure on China to calculate the risks and benefits of not following the award. Our neighboring states will also do their calculation."
But Roque pointed out China will eventually comply.
"Naniniwala po ako ngayon na kailangan nilang sabihin na
'di nila kikilalanin ang desisyong ito dahil galit ang Tsinong publiko. Eh pagkalipas ng konting panahon, huhupa rin iyan. Makikita na China susunod at susunod sa desisyon na ito," Roque said.
But should it not, he reiterated that the Philippines has the option of taking its case before the United Nations.
Roque also stressed the importance of the invalidation of China's nine-dash line, that some of the artificial islands constructed by China are actually low-tide elevations that are under the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of the Philippines, that the Spratlys just generate entitlements of 12-nautical miles, thus avoiding the possible overlaps of EEZs.
However, he also noted that the Philippines failed to get a declaration that Scarborough Shoal is part of the Philippine EEZ, which he believes is because China claims it as their territory and the tribunal has no jurisdiction over territorial claims.
Hilbay also noted that by declaring certain features as rocks that do not generate anything more than 12-nautical-mile territorial entitlement, the claims of other countries have been contained to the immediate area of the features they claim.