MANILA — Vice President Leni Robredo on Tuesday called on President Rodrigo Duterte's administration to "show a little courage" against Beijing, after it said Manila's arbitral triumph against China's sweeping claims to Philippine waters was nothing but a piece of "waste paper."
Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian, on the fifth anniversary of the ruling on Monday, said that the arbitration award was "illegal, null and void."
"It is nothing more than a piece of waste paper," he said at a press briefing, quoted by multiple news reports.
It echoed the sentiment of President Rodrigo Duterte, who has pursued friendly ties with China and shelved the ruling in pursuit of investment and infrastructure funding from Beijing.
In May, the President said the arbitral ruling was a piece of "paper" that could be thrown into the wastebasket.
Robredo said she was not surprised with the remark from the Chinese official, though " the tone is unnecessary and unfortunate."
"The message is actually expected kasi ganoon naman ‘di ba (because that is the way it is, isn't it)? After all, governments are expected to assert their nations’ interests, even if sometimes they have to bend logic in the process," she said in a video message.
"Pero ‘yong sa ‘kin kasi, personal, sana all. Sana ‘yong gobyerno natin willling din na magpakita ng kaunting tapang regarding the issue kasi talagang habang umaatras tayo, lalo lang tayong didiinan. ‘Pag interest na ng sariling bansa natin, dapat pumalag tayo," the Vice President continued.
(But for me, personally, I wish that's how it is for all. I wish our government is also willing to show a little courage regarding the issue because the more we back out, the more that they will pin us down. When it comes to the interest of our own country, we should fight back.)
Video courtesy of VP Leni Robredo Facebook page
On July 12, 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled that Beijing had no historic title over the South China Sea, as it claims. It also said China had interfered with traditional Philippine fishing rights at Scarborough Shoal and breached the Philippines' sovereign rights by exploring for oil and gas near the Reed Bank, which is within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone.
China—which lays claim to most of the waters within its so-called 9-dash line, overlapping with claims of the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Vietnam—has reiterated that Beijing does not accept the ruling.
In just one incident in March, the Philippines complained of incursions by what it said were more than 200 Chinese militia vessels into the exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which extends 200 nautical miles from its coast.
"The data here is very clear," said Greg Poling of Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Chinese Coast Guard ships and the militia are in the Philippines' EEZ more than they were 5 years ago."
Duterte has refused to press China to follow the ruling. Instead, he has made the relationship with China a key part of his foreign policy and said it was "inutile" to try to challenge its vastly bigger neighbor.
After some of his cabinet stepped up rhetoric over the waters early this year, Duterte barred them from speaking out.
"China is more in control. The only thing the Duterte government can point to is they haven't had a major incident," Poling said. "If you just keep surrendering to the bully, of course there won't be a fight."
Malacañang, however, said on Monday that the administration has "done all that we could" to champion the ruling, despite what it said was the absence of an enforcement mechanism under international law.
The President's spokesman Harry Roque also disputed reports that Filipino fishermen's encounters with Chinese boats were more frequent than ever.
– With a report from Reuters