“The Philippines dropped the ball,” Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio said on Wednesday, describing the Duterte administration’s handling of Manila’s victory over Beijing in the South China Sea dispute.
Carpio, who also hit the Duterte administration for lack of a clear strategic policy in the maritime dispute, was among the speakers at a forum organized by the ADR Institute led by former Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario to mark the first anniversary of the Philippine victory in the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.
The forum was perhaps the only public event in the country on Wednesday that gave prominence to the arbitral ruling that invalidated China’s claim to almost all of the South China Sea and recognized the Philippines’ sovereign rights to fish and explore for minerals in the West Philippine Sea, waters within the country’s 370-kilometer exclusive economic zone in the heavily disputed waterway.
President Rodrigo Duterte refused to press the victory, preferring to mend fences with China in exchange for loans and improved trade.
“The stunning victory became strangely orphaned. The Duterte administration refused to celebrate the ruling even though the ruling legally secured the Philippines a vast maritime zone larger than the total land area of the Philippines,” Carpio said.
He said he was “aghast” when Mr. Duterte declared six months after the ruling that he would be “setting it aside,” because it meant its nullification or abandonment under the doctrine in international law on unilateral declarations by heads of state.
“The DFA (Department of Foreign Affairs) issued a clarification that there was no abandonment of the ruling hours before China warmly accepted the President’s statement. This prevented the President’s statement [from] becoming legally binding [on] the Philippines. We escaped a self-inflicted colossal disaster by the skin of our teeth,” Carpio said.
He added: “This incident graphically explains the Philippine foreign policy in the South China Sea dispute after the arbitral ruling: a policy without discernible direction, coherence or vision. A policy that relies more on improvisation than long-term strategy.”
The DFA on Wednesday issued a statement as restrained as its acceptance of the ruling on July 12 last year.
The statement described the Philippines as a “regional peacemaker” and hailed its robust economic and diplomatic relations with China.
No move for int’l support
“When the ruling came out, we did not ask the international community to support us. We dropped the ball,” Carpio said, replying to a question about the seeming lack of support from other countries after the arbitral tribunal handed down its decision on the case brought by the Philippines.
He said Nicaragua “waged an action” in the UN General Assembly after the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled the United States violated international law when it supported the right-wing Contra militant groups.
“Every year they would sponsor a resolution inquiring that the US should comply with the ICJ and they would be voting every year. They would get the majority and every year they would sponsor the same resolution and the majority would increase every year until the last voting only one country sided with the US,” Carpio said.
The Philippines, he said, did not even start such a campaign for international support for the arbitral ruling.
“We just dropped the ball when [the ruling] came out. How can you expect the world to support us?” Carpio said.
Former National Security Adviser Roilo Golez said at the forum that many countries were ready to express their support for the Philippines and urge China to respect the ruling.
Among these supporters were the United States, Australia, European Union, Japan and India, Golez said.
“[But] I guess it would be very difficult for the other countries to take the initiative if the principal [was] not taking the initiative,” Golez said.
Jay Batongbacal, director of the UP Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, said that a year after the arbitral ruling “we have to distinguish literally the decision, the legal decision and the realities on the ground.”
“It is entirely possible that the realities on the ground certainly be such that [they make] the decision literally purely just a piece of paper,” Batongbacal said.
Golez said that despite the warm relations between Manila and Beijing, he believed China was eyeing the resource-rich Philippine Rise off the country’s eastern coast, formerly known as Benham Rise.
China can use Philippine Rise to provide oceanographic data for its submarine deployment as well as data for natural resources and energy for its “rapid industrialization,” Golez said.
China also wants Philipine Rise for its advance to the second island chain defense, he said.
Part of China orbit
“I submit [Philippine] Rise is one of China’s strategic objectives. A master of diplomacy like China would certainly aspire for the Philippines to be part of its orbit… China would like to break out of first island chain, while other powers want to keep them in first island chain,” Golez said.
Carpio said President Duterte, being the chief architect of the country’s foreign policy, was not violating the Constitution for not bringing up the arbitration ruling with China.
“He can bring it up at the right time and the right time is up to him. I don’t think there is a violation of the Constitution if he does not bring it up immediately. But, of course, if he brings it up [on] the last day of his term, it would be practically useless,” Carpio said.
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