MANILA - An ominous forecast has come from one of the top legal experts and staunchest defenders of the West Philippine Sea.
According to Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, China will attempt to reclaim Scarborough Shoal and turn it into their island before the end of the term of President Rodrigo Duterte.
“They tried to do that in 2016, but President [Barack] Obama told them you cannot do that so they sent back their dredgers. We all know they have a plan,” said Carpio.
“So my take: they will try to reclaim Scarborough Shoal in 3 years’ time, during the term of Duterte. Why during the term of President Duterte? Because the President said I cannot stop China.”
Carpio warns the public against trusting too much in the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea that China has been trying to broker with the ASEAN nations. It could, he said, trap the Philippines into abiding by a new set of rules that favors China, as opposed to all nations abiding by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which treats all nations fairly.
“I think China wants to draw us into the Code of Conduct to replace the UNCLOS settlement mechanism," he said.
“We should be careful. Because if we fall into the trap, we have to settle the merits of the dispute in accordance with the Code of Conduct, and China has the veto power. It’s not arbitration. We need the consent of China.”
Carpio projects that China will make a move on Scarborough Shoal before signing the Code of Conduct, therefore using the Code to protect their artificial islands from attack.
“After they finish the reclamation, the island building in Scarborough Shoal, they will say ‘Let’s sign the Code of Conduct. Nobody builds anything anymore.’ Everything will freeze. And that will legitimize what they have created. Their artificial islands,” he said.
President Duterte’s perceived submissiveness towards China is a big contributor in the success of this plan, Carpio believes. “If China will dredge today, he [Duterte] will not send a Navy ship or a Coast Guard vessel to stop it. So if no Navy ship or Coast Guard vessel is attacked, we cannot invoke the [US-PH Mutual Defense] treaty. The US will say there is no armed attack on a public vessel of the Philippines,” explains Carpio.
“The reclamation will be completed, and that’s it. You cannot tell the Americans later on. Because we did not do our part.”
Carpio meanwhile said he was amenable to the Memorandum of Understanding and Terms of Reference that the Philippines and China signed for the joint exploration of Reed Bank, because the Service Contract it will operate under clearly states that “The Philippines has sovereign rights over the gas.”
“You know, when the MOU was signed, I was really surprised that they [China] signed, because I talked to a lot of people including ambassadors, and they said China will never do that. But China did. So I was wondering whether they didn’t realize it or not,” he said.
In signing into the understanding, Carpio said China, through the China National Offshore Oil Company (CNOOC), “impliedly recognizes we have sovereign rights. That is why I am in of the MOU – as long as we maintain that structure, we do not deviate from that structure, we are pretty safe.”