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Philippines should use legal, moral leverage in West Philippine Sea – expert

Janvic Mateo - The Philippine Star
Philippines should use legal, moral leverage in West Philippine Sea � expert
This photo taken on Feb. 16, 2024 shows Filipino fishermen aboard their wooden boats (middle L and 2nd L) and Philippine Fisheries and Aquatic Resources personnel aboard their rigid hull inflatable boat (foreground C) sailing past a Chinese coast guard ship (top) near the China-controlled Scarborough Shoal, in disputed waters of the South China Sea.
AFP / Ted Aljibe

MANILA, Philippines — The Philippines should leverage its “legal and moral authority” in dealing with China’s aggression in the West Philippine Sea (WPS), according to a maritime security expert.

Ray Powell, director of the SeaLight Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation at Stanford University, said China is using an “asymmetrical” strategy through military might in asserting its claims in the region.

While it is good for the Philippines to improve its assets, such as by acquiring new ships, Powell said this will not make the country at par with China.

“It’s wise for the Philippines to do things asymmetrically,” he said in an interview with “Storycon” on One News yesterday.

“Where does the Philippines have strength? The Philippines has strength, first of all, in its legal standing on the international stage. It has the moral authority as being the clearly aggrieved party, which is recognized by almost any party who is not in Beijing,” he said.

Although China ignores the 2016 arbitral ruling, Powell noted that the world generally recognizes the position of the Philippines.

He also expressed support for the Philippine government’s plan to file another case against China, this time over the environmental destruction that China has caused in the West Philippine Sea.

“This is another example of asymmetric response, relying on the Philippines’ legal and moral authority. By being the aggrieved party, by representing the truth, I think this is an advantage in favor of the Philippines,” said the maritime expert.

He recognized, however, the difficulty in gathering evidence to support the case, noting Chinese presence in areas where the destruction of marine resources is happening.

“If the Philippines is able to get enough evidence, I think it has a great potential to make a difference on the international stage,” he added.

Powell noted that China has stepped up its aggression in the region, mainly in response to the Philippines standing firm on its position.

“If I were to put this back a year and a half, they would have had just a couple of ships around Scarborough (Panatag) Shoal, a couple around Ayungin Shoal. They would have maybe a few back up at Mischief (Panganiban) Reef,” said Powell.

“Now there are, at any given time, a dozen around Scarborough Shoal. They have pushed past Ayungin Shoal and now are at Sabina (Escoda) Shoal – on a full time basis. There is always a ship there,” he said.

‘Asean unlikely to back Philippines

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is unlikely to support the Philippines in its dispute with China on the WPS, security analyst Chester Cabalza said Tuesday.

Interviewed by Storycon, Cabalza said the ASEAN “maintains neutrality and consensus” in making decisions as its traditional policy.

“It is right that the President (Marcos) is laying down the issue to awaken the ASEAN members,” Cabalza further said.

Cabalza cited a recent survey among ASEAN members that showed nine out of 10 member-countries are favoring the economy of China.

ASEAN is composed of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines.

Cabalza noted that in 2013, the Philippines failed to get the support of the ASEAN during the standoff in Panatag Shoal, prompting the Philippine government to go to the United Nations.

“They (ASEAN) said at the time they will maintain neutrality,” Cabalza said.

Cabalza said the main objective of the founders of the ASEAN was to work together but as the Philippines is not getting this, the country might as well exit from it.

He said the Philippines cannot depend on Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia because these three ASEAN countries are “economically dependent on China.”

Cabalza said the ASEAN also viewed the disputes between the Philippines and China involving the WPS as part of the power play between the US and China.

However, he said that while being left alone by the ASEAN, the Philippines remains strong in its claims on WPS because of its widening diplomatic network.

“Imagine, we have 14 countries that observed us in the last Balikatan exercises. That was the first time that it happened,” Cabalza said.

“Meaning even if we are not supported by ASEAN now, the whole world believed in us. They want to have strategic alliance and partnership with the Philippines,” he said. – Jose Rodel Clapano

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