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International relations

Duterte under pressure to press South China Sea claims

Two years after arbitration win, Philippine policy slammed as soft on Beijing

china banner
Banners declaring the Philippines a province of China appeared in various parts of Metro Manila on July 12. Nobody has claimed responsibility for the apparent prank.(Contributed photo)

MANILA -- Two years after the Philippines won a major legal victory against China at The Hague, President Rodrigo Duterte is coming under pressure to wield the ruling in its South China Sea disputes and to discard what many see as a weak-kneed approach.

At a forum held by local think tank Stratbase ADR Institute on Thursday, former Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert Del Rosario had a question for the diplomats, geopolitical experts and journalists in attendance.

"What should we call one that uses muscle to deprive others of their rights?"

Del Rosario, who chairs Stratbase, supplied his own answer, "A bully."

He went on with a counter-query for a "balanced view." "What may we call one that acquiesces to the abuses against it?"

"A willing victim," he said, before branding China "a grand larcenist" and "international outlaw."

This was how Manila's former top diplomat portrayed the Philippines' attitude exactly two years after it won a landmark case regarding claims in the South China Sea.

On July 12, 2016, the Permanent Arbitration Court in The Hague ruled in favor of the Philippines, which had challenged Beijing's claim over the 3.5 million sq. km. area.

The court, which does not have an enforcement mechanism, ruled that China's historic "nine-dash line" has no legal basis. It was an embarrassing defeat for Beijing, which says it holds "indisputable sovereignty" over the waterway.

Some $3 trillion to $5 trillion worth of trade passes through the South China Sea every year. Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan also have territorial claims in the body of water.

Duterte, who assumed the presidency less than two weeks before the ruling, has adopted a nonconfrontational approach on the issue in exchange for billions of dollars worth of economic deals. In a reversal of his predecessor's policy, Duterte has embraced China, saying the Philippines would find itself at war with the most powerful nation in Asia were it to press its claims.

duterte 2 Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is being criticized for taking a soft stance toward China regarding disputes in the South China Sea.   © Reuters

Alan Peter Cayetano, the incumbent foreign minister, has said the Philippines will not give up "an inch" of territory. Yet he avoids publicly chastising China over its militarization of the sea. Instead, he says missiles installed on China-built islands in disputed areas are not directed at Manila but at those who dare to take on a rising maritime power.

This approach is "naive" and has only worsened the situation, said Jay Batongbacal, director at the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and the Law of the Sea.

"It would be naive to think that being told that the Philippines is not a target would automatically and magically change the region's geography and alter the strategic location of the country as a potential battle space," he said at the forum, organized by Manila think tank Stratbase ADR Institute, chaired by Del Rosario.

In June, a video of Chinese coast guards seizing Filipino fishermen's catch circulated on social media, drawing the ire of many Filipinos. The Philippine government, however, played down the episode.

The incident "is one indicator of the level to which the rules-based order at sea has deteriorated within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone," Batongbacal said.

Vice-President Leni Robredo, who also spoke at the forum, said "China's encroachment on Philippine territories is the most serious external threat to our country since World War II."

"This is the time for us to peacefully protest any effort to limit movements within these waters," she said.

On Thursday, red banners declaring the Philippines a "province of China" mysteriously appeared in various parts of Metro Manila. Batongbacal believes the antic was a form of protest against Duterte's perceived pro-China policy.

In a survey conducted in June by Pulse Asia, a local pollster, and commissioned by Stratbase, 73% of respondents believe Duterte should assert the Philippines' claims in the South China Sea.

Acting Supreme Court Chief Justice Antonio Carpio said the president has the "constitutional duty to conduct regular patrols" in the area. "The Filipino people would like to see security patrols periodically and regularly," he said at the forum.

However, George Siy, director at the Integrated Development Studies Institute think tank in Manila, said Duterte's nonconfrontational approach is working and the Philippines is reaping the fruits of an "independent foreign policy."

"We have become a respected party all over Asia," Siy told foreign correspondents last Tuesday. "This is a triumph that is multidimensional. We don't have to give up anything. We use diplomacy and a strategic and long-term approach."

Nikkei staff writer Mikhail Flores contributed to this report.

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