Moving on

COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva - The Philippine Star

The Filipino nation quietly observed the other day its first year of having legally settled and secured its territorial and sovereign rights over the disputed islands, reefs, shoals, atolls, islets and rocks at West Philippine Sea. A year ago on July 12, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) handed down its ruling in favor of the Philippine claims of these land and rock masses found around and within its 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) at West Philippine Sea but which remain contested by China.

While it refused to participate at the proceedings before the international arbitral body, Beijing’s reclaimed areas grew in size and airstrips and military installations popped out overnight on these man-made land masses within our country’s EEZ. Thus, while the PCA ruling changed the course of historic claims of Beijing over its overlapping maritime claims with the Philippines, Chinese reclamations surreptitiously continue unabated.

Carefully couched in diplomacy, the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte issued an official statement last Wednesday, citing both sides have set aside past hurts and worked on to heal the strained ties. In the same Palace statement, the Duterte administration expressed the hopes and optimism to even better the longstanding bilateral relations between the Philippines and China and to continue improving on them.

The warm Manila-Beijing relationship turned stone cold following the elevation of the overlapping maritime irritants by the Philippines against China before the PCA in 2013 during the administration of former President Benigno “Noy” Aquino III (P-Noy). Through the initiatives of then Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) Secretary Albert del Rosario, the country invoked its claims under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS).

Already during those days, Manila-Beijing ties turned sour over the Luneta bus hostage incident in August 2010 after the botched police rescue of Chinese tourists held hostage by a dismissed cop. The irritants further widened and relations turned icier as Chinese frigates started harassing Filipino fishermen in Scarborough Shoal, historically called as Bajo de Masinloc in Zambales.

In a landmark ruling, the PCA declared China had violated the Philippines’ rights when it constructed artificial islands in disputed areas and hindered the Filipinos’ fishing and oil exploration activities. The unanimous ruling, contained in 497 pages, awarded the Philippines sovereign rights over Panganiban (Mischief) Reef, Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal, and Recto (Reed) Bank located in Palawan.

The Hague arbitral body did not award sovereign rights to the Philippines over Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal but declared, however, that China violated the country’s rights when Chinese frigates prevented Filipino fishermen from Zambales all the way to Pangasinan. The shoal is situated within the country’s EEZ, specifically 124 nautical miles off Zambales.

The PCA ruling came two weeks after the change of administration in the Philippines after P-Noy stepped down from office at Malacanang Palace to give way to former Davao City Mayor Duterte as his duly elected successor. Adopting the stance to be magnanimous in victory, the newly sworn in President Duterte expressed the Philippine government’s every intention to exercise due diligence in asserting the PCA ruling but without resorting to any armed conflict with such military might of China.

In so many words, President Duterte conceded in candor the Philippines has no capability to engage China without bringing into armed conflict the country’s allies like the US, Japan, and other South China Sea claimant countries. Turning to his favorite “Ecclesiastes 3” proverb that there is a time for every thing, President Duterte promise to raise the Philippine intention to assert the PCA ruling with his Chinese counterpart President Xi Jinping at the right time when such opportunity comes along.

Two trips to Beijing later – one state visit and one official visit for China’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) roadshow –  we have yet to hear President Duterte’s right time for the PCA ruling. During his state visit to China last October, Presidents Duterte and Xi agreed to hold bilateral talks on the South China Sea dispute.

Official Chinese mouthpieces proudly announced the Duterte-Xi agreement signaled the “full recovery” of the friendship between the two countries.

The re-warming of relations reportedly will amount to about $124 billion worth of pledged investments and grants and official development assistance under the OBOR program in forging a path of peace and free trade between the two countries. This include a $17-million aid to put up this year two bridges across Pasig River to help ease Metro Manila traffic congestion.

In one of his extemporaneous speeches after his second trip to Beijing, President Duterte told the Filipino nation he raised to his Chinese counterpart leader our conflicting territorial claims. He quoted the supposed retort by President Xi: “We might go to war.” President Duterte never talked about it after that.

As we mark that one-year after the PCA ruling, Malacañang highlighted anew the country’s vindication of our West Philippine Sea claims and reaffirmed its commitment to protect the country’s territorial claims and maritime entitlements. They reiterated that the country will remain “an enemy to none and a friend to all” a year after President Duterte first adopted his “independent foreign policy” direction for the remaining five years of his term.

“Secretary of Foreign Affairs Alan Peter S. Cayetano reiterates that the Duterte administration is committed to its strategy to strengthen old allies and engage new partner nations,” said the DFA speaking for their newly installed chief foreign policy implementor. In fact, Cayetano started already the ball rolling on bilateral talks to resolve the overlapping claims of South China Sea when he went to Beijing on June 28 to July 1 and began talks with his Chinese counterpart.

The former Senator though did not start cold with these tasks. Cayetano apparently started moving on the once stalled Manila-Beijing relations when he first joined President Duterte as DFA Secretary in-waiting in all presidential trips to China and state visits abroad all in one year.

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