Analysts: Timing of Hague decision crucial as election nears

Patricia Lourdes Viray ( - January 17, 2016 - 8:28pm

MANILA, Philippines - The decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague, Netherlands on the arbitration case against the Philippines and China would be critical with the elections coming, according to analysts.

Southeast Asia expert Ernest Bower and research associate Conor Cronin said that a decision delivered before the May elections would allow President Benigno Aquino III to respond strategically, whatever the outcome is.

However, if the decision is delivered after the elections, the new administration will be in charge of managing the tribunal's decision.

"If the court decides China's claims are not legal, then the Philippines, ASEAN and countries across the world who believe that rule of law should govern the seas will need to carefully and constructively encourage Beijing to recognize and embrace this core tenet of international governance and security," Bower and Cronin said in an article published on the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.

Bower and Cronin pointed out the different stands of the presidential candidates on the West Philippine Sea dispute.

Vice President Jejomar Binay has publicly affirmed that he would continue the arbitration process but also called for a bilateral resolution to the maritime dispites. In an earlier radio interview, he also suggested joint ventures with China to explore energy resources in the disputed sea.

Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago supports the arbitration case but strongly opposes the presence of United States troops in the country.

"It is unclear whether Santiago would risk defying China after shirking US military support," the analysts said.

Contrary to the administration's approach, Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte is in favor of pursuing bilateral talks and a less confrontational approach with China to resolve the issue.

The analysts noted that Sen. Grace Poe and Liberal Party standard bearer Manuel "Mar" Roxas II are most likely to continue the Aquino administration's approach on the maritime dispute. Roxas earlier stressed that he supports Aquino's approach to China while Poe, although an independent candidate, aligns closely with the administration party, the analysts said.

"If the court hopes to pass down a decision which will not be thoroughly ignored as realpolitik overtakes it, it needs to ensure that the Aquino administration has ample time to institutionalize its approach," Bower and Cronin said.

The analysts said that if the new administration decides to pursue bilateral talks with China and ignores the case before the tribunal, it would discourage small nations to turn into international law and arbitration.

"If the Philippines didn’t get anything out of pursuing its case, why should Vietnam or Malaysia follow in the future?" the analysts said.

The analysts added that other claimant states might turn to military build-up to defend their interests as avenues for fair resolution of disputes are closed.

Bower and Cronin pointed out that a combination of legal efforts, diplomacy, compromise and cooperation would resolve the sea dispute.

"The window for the court to make an impact on the international relations of the South China Sea is closing fast, but just as critical is Manila’s response and a coordinated global message to Beijing to embrace the rule of law in the interest of regional stability and peace," Bower and Cronin said.

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