Duterte criticized for inaction on sea dispute with China despite legal victory

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Members of the Philippine team are seated at the Peace Palace in The Hague before starting oral arguments on the arbitration case against China’s claims over the West Philippine Sea in July 2015. (Photo from the Twitter account of Abigail Valte)

Two members of the Philippine legal team that won in 2016 the arbitration case against China on the territorial dispute in the West Philippine Sea expressed disappointment over the Duterte administration’s continued inaction on the issue, in effect disregarding the country’s victory.

Exactly one year ago to this day, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) upheld major submissions of the Philippines, including the declaration of China’s nine-dash line, as contrary to United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Seas (UNCLOS) and without basis in law.

The award also affirmed the Philippines’ stance that China’s move to shoo away Filipino fishermen at the disputed Scarborough Shoal was also unlawful.

It also declared that the Mischief Reef, Second Thomas Shoal, and Reed Bank as “part of the exclusive economic zone and continental shelf of the Philippines, and are not overlapped by any possible entitlement of China.”

The PCA ruling also held that China violated its obligations under UNCLOS to protect and preserve the maritime environment when it built artificial islands in Mischief Reef without getting the necessary permission from the Philippines.

“The stunning victory became strangely orphan,” Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio said on Wednesday. “The Duterte administration refused to celebrate the ruling even though the ruling legally secured for the Philippines a vast maritime zone than the total land area of the Philippines.”

Carpio said he was “aghast” when President Rodrigo Duterte announced last year that he was setting aside the PCA ruling to secure better economic relations with China.

The magistrate said that, if not for the immediate clarification by the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), the Philippines would have suffered a “self-inflicted colossal disaster.”

He explained that to “set aside” in law, would mean “to nullify, void or abandon.” Without the DFA clarification, the President’s statement would have become binding following the “unilateral declarations by heads of state.”

Carpio said the Philippines adopted a foreign policy without a discernable direction or policy.

He said the policy relied “more on improvisation than on long-term strategy.”

On the other hand, former Solicitor General Florin Hilbay said: “The current administration seems to have adopted a policy of defeatism and a mindset of non-enforcement of the award. Filipinos haven’t seen any forward movement for the Philippines and there has been no pushback against China’s continued aggression.”

“The first anniversary of the tribunal’s award marks a year of disappointment after disappointment after our victory at The Hague,” Hilbay said in a text message.

Carpio suggested that the government should file another arbitral case against China’s action in the contested areas.

He believes that China is using a strategy to control South China Sea without using force and that they would only sign any Code of Conduct, whic is being pushed in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, after completing its naval base in the contested areas. /atm

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