MANILA - Despite the landmark ruling five years ago by an intergovernmental court favoring the Philippines’ maritime claims in the South China Sea, President Rodrigo Duterte said on Monday that “arbitration” between his country and China never occurred as the latter refused to participate in the process.
“What will I do with a document that does not bind China because they were never a part of that arbitration? There was really no arbitration at all because it was only the Philippines side who was heard,” Duterte said in his last State of the Nation Address (SONA).
The Philippines elevated in 2013 its maritime disputes with China in the South China Sea to the intergovernmental Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA), as provided by the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which both countries are signatories to.
China, which insists on bilateral negotiations in settling the dispute, did not take part in the arbitration proceedings despite the opportunities given by the court. It continues to disregard the ruling that invalidated its expansive claims over almost the entire South China Sea.
The Hague-based PCA said that throughout the proceedings, it took steps to to test the accuracy of the Philippines’ claims, and ascertained "China’s position on the basis of its contemporaneous public statements and diplomatic correspondence."
It said the award was final and binding, as set out in the UNCLOS.
Duterte, who assumed office only a few days before the victory in the PCA was promulgated in July 2016, temporarily shelved the ruling to forge friendlier relations with China in favor of economic assistance and investments. In the few instances that he brought it up with Chinese President Xi Jinping, the latter only reiterated his country’s position that it does not recognize the ruling.
In May this year, Duterte called the victory in the arbitral tribunal a mere piece of paper that he would throw in the waste basket.
Addressing critics of his approach toward China, Duterte said in his SONA: “Do you want war against China? Well, I’ll tell you. Even on the coast, beach of Palawan, before you can take off, the missile of China would be there in about five or 10 minutes. It would be a massacre if I go and fight a war now.”
He said the United States has also issued statements it will not meddle in conflicts involving boundaries of other nations, and that if it goes to war, it needs to get authority from its Congress.
Former Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonio Carpio and other law of the sea experts have refuted Duterte’s fear of going to war with China, saying Manila can assert the enforcement of the award with the help of the international community.
At one point in his speech, Duterte said, “We will assert what is rightfully ours and fight for what is rightfully due for the Filipino people.”
“We asserted the arbitration ruling on the South China Sea clearly and in no uncertain terms bilaterally, in the ASEAN, and finally at the United Nations General Assembly,” he said.
“I said in September of last year, the arbitral award is now part of international law, and beyond compromise and beyond the reach of the passing governments to dilute, to diminish or abandon,” he added.
Duterte denied anew the allegation that China helped him in the 2016 polls, and said he only talked “civilly” to the Chinese leader after his electoral victory until they became good friends.
“For some people to say that I was helped by China in being President, these idiots really. I will never, never do that. ‘Di na bale ako hindi ma-Presidente, hindi ko gagawin yan,” he said.
(It doesn’t matter if I don’t become President, I will never really do that.)
Measures to be taken by the government to prevent further Chinese incursion into the country’s territory in the West Philippine Sea was among the issues that respondents of a Pulse Asia survey wanted to hear from Duterte in his final SONA.
In his SONA last year, Duterte said he was "inutile" vis-a-vis Beijing's pursuit of territory and resources in the South China Sea.
The Philippines should "just cool off" and pursue "diplomatic endeavors" to counter Beijing’s sweeping claims to the area "unless we are prepared to go to war," he said in his fifth SONA.
"China is claiming it, we are claiming it. China has the arms. We do not have it so it’s simple as that. They are in possession of the property… So what can we do? We have to go to war, and I cannot afford it. Maybe some other President can, but I cannot," Duterte had said.
"Inutil ako d’yan and I’m willing to admit it. Talagang inutil ako d’yan, walang magawa," he added.
(I'm inutile there and I’m willing to admit it. I'm really inutile there, I can't do anything.)
Duterte's "defeatist" remarks on the maritime conflict with China undermine the positions espoused by the Philippines' foreign and defense departments, maritime law expert Jay Batongbacal, Director of the UP Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, has said.
In his first SONA in 2016, Duterte said the country “strongly” affirms and respects “the outcome of the case… as an important contribution to the ongoing efforts to pursue a peaceful resolution and management of our disputes.”
In his second SONA, he boasted of the “warmer relations with China” cultivated through “bilateral dialogues and other mechanisms.” These, he said, led to “easing of tensions between the two countries and improved negotiating environment on the West Philippine Sea.”