YearEnder: Phl wins arbitration case vs China, but...
Pia Lee-Brago (The Philippine Star) - January 12, 2017 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines – The year 2016 saw the Philippines scoring an international legal victory against China in the West Philippine Sea dispute, but straining ties with the United States, the European Union and the United Nations because of the bloody war on drugs of the new administration.

Since 2012, China has been aggressively claiming islands and shoals in the South China Sea, even those within Philippine territory. Beijing’s basis for its expansive and excessive claims is its historic rights to a nine-dash line in the disputed sea.

But in a landmark ruling on July 12, 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague found no legal basis for China’s nine-dash line. The PCA ruled that China had breached the sovereign rights of the Philippines.

The PCA also ruled that many purported islands controlled by China are not in islands but reefs or rocks, which do not generate territorial rights.

China has refused to honor the ruling. Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin even accused the judges of taking bribes from the Philippines in exchange for a favorable ruling.

It was the previous Aquino administration that filed a case against China’s excessive claims in the South China Sea.

The PCA released its ruling during the Duterte administration, which put the landmark ruling on the back burner to improve Philippines-China relations.

Former foreign affairs secretary Albert del Rosario, the top diplomat of the Aquino administration and the brain trust in taking China to court, slammed the Duterte administration for declaring that it would set aside the PCA ruling and for not protesting China’s deployment of missile systems in the South China Sea.

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop also questioned why the Duterte administration is not enforcing the PCA ruling. She said she was surprised by Duterte’s decision not to allow the Philippines to join the joint patrols in the South China Sea and not to traverse the territory the PCA found within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. said the Philippines would not stop China from building military structures on disputed islands in the South China Sea because countries can separately deal with China regarding the presence of military weapons on the structures they built in the South China Sea.

Beijing expressed willingness to enhance pragmatic cooperation across the board and achieve mutually beneficial and win-win results.

Strained ties with US, EU, UN

As the Philippines’ relations with China improved, ties with its long-time ally the US, as well as the EU and UN, were strained.

The fallout started after Duterte threw insults at the US, EU and UN for criticizing his bloody war on drugs, which has been marked by summary killings and human rights violations.

The US and EU urged the Duterte government to put an end to the current wave of extrajudicial killings, launch an immediate investigation into them and adopt specific, comprehensive policies and programs in full compliance with national and international obligations and respect for human rights.

Duterte even threatened to leave the UN as he lambasted the statements of UN special rapporteurs who urged his administration to stop summary executions of drug peddlers.

But Yasay said the Philippines would not leave the UN despite profound disappointment and frustration of the Duterte administration with international human rights experts who urged the Philippines to stop drug-related killings.

Addressing the United Nations General Assembly in September, Yasay told the UN that the world should not interfere in the Philippine government’s action against illegal drugs, saying it has been widely misunderstood.

‘Independent foreign policy’

In September, Duterte announced that he would chart an independent foreign policy and “open alliances” with China and Russia.

He said the Philippines would pass a “point of no return” in its relations with the US, in a bid to strengthen ties with others.

During his visit to Manila in October, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russel said Washington does not want the Philippines to choose between the US and China and they do not object to improved relations.

He said it is a mistake to think that improved relations between Manila and Beijing somehow come at the expense of the US: “That’s not how we think.”

“This should be addition and not subtraction,” Russel told reporters after meeting with Yasay. “We don’t want countries to have to choose between US and China but we do want countries to be able to choose, to have choices, to have autonomy, to make their own decisions in keeping their own democratic values, and in keeping with international law.”

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