MANILA - Malacañang on Tuesday conceded that the Philippines' arbitration victory against China over the South China Sea could not be enforced, as it defended anew President Rodrigo Duterte’s foreign policy pivot towards Beijing.
Presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo made the statement when asked whether the ruling, which government has set aside in pursuit of better trade ties with China, was virtually useless.
“As of now yes... For purposes of enforcement [it is useless], but psychologically it benefits us,” he said in a Palace press briefing.
He said the ruling "cannot not be taken away from us" and that "it will be there forever."
"But meanwhile, who will enforce it? There is no power on earth presently that can enforce it. The United Nations cannot, the US cannot… Who will enforce it?" Panelo told reporters.
"Meanwhile, perhaps from the point of view of the President, we can get things done by negotiating – that is precisely why we have this mechanism of negotiating, talking with them. That is why we have this Code of Conduct, because as far as the Chinese are concerned, 'we own this… this is ours."
Panelo was referring to negotiations for a binding Code of Conduct that seeks to govern the behavior of states in the South China Sea, a vital sea lane where more than $3 trillion in trade passes through.
China claims nearly all of the waters, contradicting with partial claims of the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan.
The Philippines in 2016 defeated China in a United Nations-backed arbitral tribunal, which invalidated Beijing’s massive claim to the strategic sea lane.
President Rodrigo Duterte, however, has chosen to set aside the ruling in exchange for better economic ties with Asia’s largest economy.
Panelo said the President opted to take this course as the Philippines cannot match China’s military and economic might. But, he added, if countries would pressure China to respect the ruling, dynamics in the hotly contested area might evolve.
“From the point of view of the President, we can get things done by negotiating,” he said.
“I said presently, perhaps if all the countries of the world will unite and pressure China, who knows? We cannot give up this claim simply because it is ours. We’ve won it and it will be there forever.”
Panelo gave this statement as Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived in the Philippines Tuesday for a two-day state visit.
China has ignored the ruling and insists it has sovereignty over the vital sea lane. Duterte, meanwhile, has raised little opposition to China’s continued military activities in the area.
“They know that it is ours. But from their point of view, it’s theirs. So there is now a conflict between the two, but we cannot go to war and we don’t want also armed conflicts arising in that region because it is us, this country, that will suffer the most,” Panelo said.
Duterte had said that despite his government’s rapprochement with China, he would never surrender the country’s claims to the sea and would bring up Manila’s arbitration victory against Beijing at the appropriate time.
His recent statement that China is now “in possession” of the South China Sea, however, has alarmed critics and observers.
China is now considered among the Philippines' top trading partners, a leading export market, and one of the largest sources of tourists, Panelo earlier noted.
Analysis, meanwhile, showed that Duterte’s move to improve ties with Beijing has produced a small dividend in terms of infrastructure investment so far.
Panelo said China’s sincerity in dealing with the Philippines will be tested by the outcome of loan agreements that the two countries were set to sign during Xi's visit.