MANILA (2nd UPDATE) - Former Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario on Monday scored President Rodrigo Duterte for his alleged "failure of leadership" and "abysmal" record in asserting the country's rights in the West Philippine Sea over the last five years.
Del Rosario served during the administration of former President Benigno Aquino III that pursued an arbitral case against China over the South China Sea. Exactly five years ago on Monday, the United Nations-backed court in The Hague ruled in favor of Manila and junked Beijing's claim to about 90 percent of the South China Sea, within which is the West Philippine Sea.
In a virtual forum to mark the fifth anniversary of the arbitral award, Del Rosario took Duterte to task for allegedly betraying the Philippines in setting aside the landmark decision.
"Since then, our country’s fight for the West Philippine Sea has lost momentum as President Duterte decided to set aside the Award in favor of Beijing’s promise of economic benefits," the country's former top diplomat said.
"As respectfully as possible, I would like to dwell today on a self-proclaimed failure of leadership."
He added, "Is it not about time for Filipinos to reject this man and what he represents?"
Del Rosario cited Duterte's remark that the arbitral ruling was "just a piece of paper" and his campaign promise that he would "ride a jet ski towards the Spratlys, plant the Philippine flag, and challenge China."
Duterte's statement that he was "inutil" against Beijing's pursuit of territory and resources in Manila's EEZ "speaks volumes," said Del Rosario.
“When President Duterte admitted that he was ‘inutil’ with respect to the West Philippine Sea, the honorable thing left for him to do was to step down given his admission that he could not fulfill his sworn mandate as President to protect the West Philippine Sea.”
"Through these acts, many Filipinos have reason to believe that our President has been discrediting our nation. For the last five years, what we see is a betrayal of the Filipino people," he said.
Among the President's mandates, as commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces, was to "secure the sovereignty of the State and the integrity of the national territory," said Del Rosario.
'LOYALTY TO FOREIGN POWER'
Del Rosario said he believes Duterte's actions "fit into a disturbing pattern of loyalty to a foreign power."
He said he received information from "a most reliable international entity that high officials from China are bragging that they had been able to influence the 2016 Philippine elections so that Duterte would be president."
"We believe that our Beijing post can easily validate this. Moreover, subsequent actions of the President lend more credence to this information," he said.
"If we accept as true President Duterte’s compromised loyalty to his country, then the actions that defined his administration’s policies in the West Philippine Sea make sense."
Del Rosario cited Duterte's remarks in 2018 that Chinese President Xi Jinping has sworn to protect him from being removed from office.
"It is certainly disturbing to see our President—who should be looking after his own people—relying on a foreign leader for his security of tenure as President. Moreover, such foreign leader represents an aggressor that is openly and illegally occupying land and waters that belong to the Filipino people," he said.
"Is it already a truism? While President Duterte holds office, are we effectively owned by China? Or is this one of President Duterte’s so-called jokes meant to escape accountability?"
The President's remark that only two out of five statements he make are true "may be seen as another way to escape accountability," Del Rosario said.
"We can say that there are two out of several of President Duterte’s statements that have turned out to be true: first, that he is 'inutil' in protecting the West Philippine Sea; and second, that he 'simply loves Xi Jinping,'" he said.
China continues to ignore the arbitration court's ruling and has instead ramped up its militarization in the South China Sea.
Sought for reaction, Duterte's spokesman Harry Roque said of Del Rosario's statements: "Kalokohan po 'yan, coming from a proven traitor."
(That's nonsense, coming from a proven traitor.)
"Siya po ang nagpaalis sa ating mga kasundaluhan sa boro (Scarborough) na naging dahilan na ang Tsina na lang ang nasa boro," Roque added.
(Del Rosario ordered our troops to leave the Scarborough Shoal that's why only the Chinese were left there.)
"Manahimik ka d’yan dahil ikaw nga ang may pananagutan d’yan. I enjoin lawyers and other groups to study the legal liability of Albert Del Rosario in ceding Scarborough Shoal to China."
(Keep your mouth shut because you are responsible for this.)
Del Rosario had said that during the Scarborough Shoal standoff in 2012, China and the Philippines, as brokered by the United States, have agreed to both pull out their vessels. But China did not comply.
Former United States Ambassador to the Philippines Harry Thomas took China to task for reneging on the agreement brokered by then US Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell for Chinese and Philippine ships to withdraw from Scarborough Shoal.
“Manila, Washington had set up to their work; China did not,” said Thomas, who also mourned the passing of Aquino.
Duterte, who pursued friendlier ties with China despite its repeated incursions in the West Philippine Sea in exchange for investments, infrastructure funding and most recently, vaccine supply, had threatened to execute Del Rosario "by hanging" in one of his tirades.
Duterte had said he would not withdraw Philippine ships from disputed waters after he drew flak over his remark that his campaign promise for Filipino fishermen in the disputed waters was a joke.
The Stratbase ADR Institute, which organized Monday's virtual forum, called on the government to defend and not to tolerate illegal incursions in the Philippines' exclusive economic zone.
“We must not allow China's blatant disregard of the UNCLOS and the rule of law. The Filipino people deserve a government that prioritizes the security and welfare of its citizens before others," the Stratbase ADR Institute Institute said in a statement read by its president Dindo Manhit.
Both the Philippines and China are signatories to the UNCLOS, which provides for arbitration as mode of settling disputes.
"We must unceasingly uphold the legacy of the 2016 arbitral ruling and our leaders should step up and create a unified action to defend the West Philippine Sea," the think-tank said.
Liz Derr, founder and CEO of US-based firm Simularity, showed satellite images to show that China’s anchored ships that are dumping raw sewage onto the reefs they are occupying are damaging the reefs in the Spratlys.
“Damaging these reefs directly affects the fish stocks of the entire South China Sea and can lead to a hunger crisis and a collapse of commercial fishing in the South China Sea. This is a catastrophe of epic proportions and we are close to the point of no return. This need to stop immediately. China, stop shitting on the Spratlys,” said Derr.
The Permanent Court of Arbitration, in its 2016 ruling, had also reprimanded China for the environmental damage caused by its island-building activities in the South China Sea.
Delivering the forum's closing remarks, retired Philippine Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio urged Manila to join naval drills and freedom of navigation operations being conducted in the South China Sea by Washington and its other allies.
He said these drills are the “most effective enforcement” of the arbitral award by asserting that the Philippines has an exclusive economic zone in the West Philippine Sea, unimpaired by China’s 9-dash line claim.
Carpio also urged coastal states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to come up with common strategy and to conduct joint maritime time patrols to defend their EEZs.
“While the arbitral award technically applies only to the parties - the Philippines and China, every one knows that China’s 9-dash line claim has totally lost legitimacy under international law and under UNCLOS in particular,” Carpio said.
In the United States, Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated the US call for China to comply with the award, saying the parties are legally bound to do so.
“We also reaffirm that an armed attack on Philippine armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft in the South China Sea would invoke U.S. mutual defense commitments under Article IV of the 1951 U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty,” Blinken said in a statement.
“We call on the (People's Republic of China) to abide by its obligations under international law, cease its provocative behavior, and take steps to reassure the international community that it is committed to the rules-based maritime order that respects the rights of all countries, big and small.”
Canada expressed concern over China’s “escalatory and destabilizing actions in the East and South China Seas, including, recently, off the Philippine coast” and the militarization of disputed features and the use of naval, coast guard and maritime militia vessels to intimidate and threaten the ships of other states.”
In a statement quoted by Canadian Ambassador to the Philippines Peter MacArthur, Global Affairs Canada reiterated “the need for all involved parties to comply” with the arbitral award.
“This decision is a significant milestone and a useful basis for peacefully resolving disputes in the South China Sea,” it said.
Toshimitsu Motegi, foreign minister of Japan, with which China is also involved in a dispute over the East China Sea, said Beijing's claim "that it will not accept the award is against the principle of peaceful settlement of disputes in accordance with international law, in particular UNCLOS."
It also "undermines the rule of law as a fundamental value of the international community," he added.
"Japan renews its objection to maritime claims in the South China Sea that are inconsistent with UNCLOS and remains seriously concerned about the current situation."
"Furthermore, Japan reiterates its strong opposition to unilateral attempts to change the status quo by force or coercion," said Motegi.
The German Embassy in Manila said the award “confirmed the relevance of a rules-based international maritime order.”
“The entire world benefits from a peaceful, safe and stable South China Sea, an important maritime trade route, where international law including UNCLOS is observed and a rules-based order respected. The ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration is a significant milestone towards that achievement,” it said.
“(Five) years have passed since the ruling yet the work for a stable and peaceful Indo-Pacific must continue. Germany remains a committed and responsible partner in this international endeavor. We are confident that the continuation of the negotiations between ASEAN and China will result in a rules-based, co-operative and effective Code of Conduct consistent with UNCLOS in the South China Sea,” it added.
German Ambassador to the Philippines Anke Reiffenstuel said the rules-based maritime order laid down in UNCLOS “ensures international cooperation and stability.”
Recalling the EU-ASEAN Senior Officials Meeting last July 8, 2021, the European Union Delegation to the Philippines reaffirmed the “importance of maintaining and promoting peace, security, stability, safety, and the right of freedom of navigation in and overflight above the South China Sea” and the peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with international law and UNCLOS in particular.
“We further encouraged negotiations towards the early conclusion of an effective and substantive Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC) consistent with international law, in particular the 1982 UNCLOS,” EU and ASEAN senior officials said.
"On the 5th anniversary of the landmark Arbitral Award, NZ calls on all parties to respect the ruling on maritime rights in the South China Sea," the New Zealand Embassy in Manila said.
Duterte's foreign minister, Teodoro Locsin, Jr. said last month that the award on the South China Sea arbitration "conclusively settled the status of historic rights and maritime entitlements" in those waters.
"The award is final. We firmly reject attempts to undermine it, nay, even erase it from law, history and our collective memories," he said.