Inutil no more
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - September 25, 2020 - 12:00am

So we’re no longer inutil, and the government no longer thinks might makes right in disputed waters… we hope.

President Duterte received widespread praise among Filipinos for asserting – finally, and before the annual gathering of world leaders, no less – that the arbitral ruling on the South China Sea is binding and must be recognized by the contending parties and the international community.

It was an impressive debut before the United Nations General Assembly. See what a tight speech can do? No stream-of-consciousness digressions from the text. Without a single insult or cuss word, the speech had a powerful impact.

Duterte’s spirited assertion of our maritime sovereign rights and the arbitral ruling even muted criticism of his defense before the UN of his drug war and the Anti-Terrorism Act, and even his lament that the human rights issue was being “weaponized” against his administration.

Whether there will be follow-through remains to be seen.

*     *     *

What could be a follow-through? Well, of course, getting Beijing to comply with the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.

That shouldn’t prove to be as impossible as it seems for China under President-for-life Xi Jinping. If it can be done without making Beijing lose face, if compliance can be presented as something that will be in the enlightened best interest of the Chinese, all can be peaceful in our corner of the planet.

Chinese officials have told me in the past that they have a fairly large nationalistic constituency whose concerns are of course factored into their foreign policy. The
Chinese worry that acceptance of the arbitral ruling will affect their claims over waters where their 200-mile exclusive economic zone overlaps with those of Vietnam and Japan. But these disputes are trickier than ours over the West Philippine Sea, which are a long way from the natural Chinese landmass.

It’s a challenge to convince such nationalists that it’s bizarre for a single country to claim nearly the entire South China Sea, which is surrounded by other lands outside China.

But the Chinese are also pragmatic, and they can see when something will redound to their long-term benefit. They will understand that if they want international leadership, which can spell prosperity for even more Chinese, they will have to lead by example in acting responsibly on the global stage.

*     *     *

When Xi Jinping tells the world that his country doesn’t want war, I believe him. China prospered and overtook Japan to become the world’s second largest economy in an environment of uninterrupted peace in the Asia-Pacific, during which it opened its market to the world.

The economic opening was marred by complaints from the international community about China’s unfair trade practices, intellectual property violations and modern-day slave labor. When its enterprises and economic competitiveness were threatened, China implemented reforms to comply with global trade rules.

Xi reportedly threatened war when President Duterte raised the arbitral ruling during their bilateral meeting. China’s behavior in a multilateral setting is not as belligerent.

Beijing is currently beset by the incessant broadsides from US President Donald Trump on unfair trade, spying, and yes, China’s role in the worst public health crisis to devastate the planet in a century.

Trump is widely seen to be using the issues for his re-election bid, but he’s not alone in his views on China, especially on its role in the spread of what he calls the “Wuhan virus.” There are Filipinos who use the term, ignoring the World Health Organization and arguing – if other afflictions are called Ebola Virus Disease and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, why not call COVID by its origin, the Wuhan virus? Especially since there are also people who agree with Trump, that Beijing initially suppressed information on the killer virus (and even tossed in jail the Wuhan ophthalmologist who sounded the alarm on COVID) until it was too late.

As news of the novel coronavirus began filtering out, our China-loving government worried about hurting Beijing’s feelings and continued to allow visitors from Wuhan itself. So a couple from China became our first COVID case and first fatality (and the first COVID death outside China). Now here we are, with 296,755 people infected and 5,127 dead as of yesterday, and six months of COVID lockdowns sending the economy into recession. Millions have been pushed into poverty and unemployment, with no significant relief seen in the near future.

Duterte’s strong stand on the South China Sea dispute, although he did not mention any country, eases perceptions that the Philippines under his watch has become a Chinese satellite.

*     *     *

As of yesterday, there was still no official response from China to his statement on the arbitral ruling. Duterte brought the issue to the UN after over four years of what was perceived as his kowtowing to Beijing, with nothing to show for his policy of capitulation.

All surveys under his watch showed that his repeated fulsome praise for all things Chinese failed to improve Filipinos’ trust of Beijing. In fact the ratings kept falling farther below zero.

What next after the speech? Malacañang said yesterday that the Philippines does not intend to seek a UN vote on enforcement of the ruling. What the government can do is seek more support from other countries, with the support matched by action.

Duterte’s speech came on the heels of strong statements from France, Germany and the United Kingdom, calling for respect for the arbitral ruling.

We may also count on support from Australia, India and New Zealand. As for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, China has successfully wielded a divide-and-rule tactic to advance its interests within the grouping.

The US, particularly under Trump, has been vocal about the need to comply with the arbitral ruling and ensure freedom of flight and navigation in the South China Sea.

With support from the international community, Beijing can be persuaded that it is in China’s best interest to honor the ruling, which is based on an international convention that it has ratified. And the Philippines and China can remain steadfast friends.

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