MANILA - If care is taken to preserve it, there is still hope that an international court's 2016 ruling in a case filed by the Philippines against China over their maritime disputes in the South China Sea can yield fruit, advocates of Manila's sovereign rights in sea said Thursday.
Speaking at a forum marking the second anniversary of the Permanent Court of Arbitration's ruling that invalidated China's sweeping claims over almost the entire South China Sea, acting Philippine chief justice Antonio Carpio said the award "will not be waived unless we waive it ourselves."
Carpio recalled that Manila could have inadvertently abandoned the award had Beijing immediately accepted President Rodrigo Duterte's declaration in December 2016 that he was setting it aside in favor of loans and investments from China.
"We could have waived the ruling if we did not clarify (Duterte's remarks)," he said. "His statements on this dispute could bind the Philippines, so he has to be careful."
After Duterte made them, Carpio said, the Department of Foreign Affairs hastened to clarify that the president would ask China for compliance at some future time during his term.
China refused to participate in the arbitration proceedings that the Philippines, under Duterte's predecessor Benigno Aquino, initiated in 2013 under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.
It continues to ignore the arbitration ruling, asserting it has indisputable sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea, and it has since completed reclamation work at seven features in the area, while installing military equipment and weaponry as well.
Duterte, whose term ends in 2022, had said he was warned by Chinese President Xi Jinping of war when he brought up Manila's desire for Beijing to comply with the arbitration award.
Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, said at the forum the country "faces a rather bleak future," thanks to the Duterte government's "soft and submissive strategy with respect to fisheries, defense and energy issues" in the South China Sea.
"While it may have indeed led to the current atmosphere and image of friendship and reduction in direct tensions between the two countries, it comes at the enormous cost of loss of sovereign rights, especially the access of our people to and ability to manage fisheries resources, exposure of our nation's territory to greater risks and collateral damage to potential major power competition and conflict, and loss of energy security in the near term," he said.
A WILLING VICTIM
Albert del Rosario, who was foreign secretary when the arbitration case was filed at The Hague-based tribunal, lamented at how the current administration "has persisted in allowing China to deprive our citizens of what is ours by continuing to shelve the tribunal outcome."
"What should we do now as a willing victim and an abettor that has fully embraced our big northern neighbor who is clearly acting as a bully, a grand larcenist, and an international outlaw?" he asked.
"We must believe that there is still time for our country to do what is right for our people. While we have allowed more than a few occasions to pass, there are opportunities yet for the Philippines to lead in promoting the rule of law."
Amid the Philippines' temporary shelving of the ruling's enforcement, fortunately, "other states have adopted the award by state practice," Carpio said, citing freedom of navigation and operations and overflights conducted by the United States, Britain, Australia, Japan, Canada and India, among others.
"In effect, these operations enforce the core legal ramifications arising from the award -- that there are high seas in the South China Sea, and around these high seas are the exclusive economic zones belonging to the adjacent coastal states, including the EEZ of the Philippines," he said.
He also hailed Indonesia for invoking the ruling for a purpose other than freedom of navigation and overflight.
According to him, the renaming of Indonesian waters in its EEZ in the South China Sea to North Natuna Sea in July 2017 is premised on the arbitration ruling's declaration that China's nine-dash line has no legal effect.
He said the world has an interest in preserving the rule of law in the South China Sea because application of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea collapses there, then it cannot also apply in other oceans.
"So, everybody, all citizens of the world have an interest in requiring China to comply with the ruling because if China can get away with it, that means the law of the sea will collapse."
Echoing the appeals of Carpio and del Rosario, Vice President Leni Robredo said in a keynote address at the forum, "This is the time for us to peacefully protest any effort to limit or control movement in these waters."
"As neighbors and friends, we must stand in opposition to military buildups (in the South China Sea)."
According to Carpio, the Aquino administration had planned that if the ruling was in favor of the Philippines, it would work to get annual resolutions passed in the U.N. General Assembly urging China to comply with it.
"What we're trying to do now is to preserve the ruling for the next administration. As long as the ruling is preserved, we can still do that," he said.
According to a survey commissioned by the forum organizer, Statbase ADR Institute, 73 percent of Filipinos respondents felt the Duterte administration should assert Philippine sovereignty in the South China Sea on the basis of the arbitration decision.