Activists hold placards during a protest in front of the Chinese Consular Office in Manila on June 11, 2018. The Philippines on June 11 demanded that China stop confiscating the catch of Filipino fishermen in the disputed South China Sea, calling the practice "unacceptable". / Photo: AFP/Noel Celis
Activists hold placards during a protest in front of the Chinese Consular Office in Manila on June 11, 2018. The Philippines on June 11 demanded that China stop confiscating the catch of Filipino fishermen in the disputed South China Sea, calling the practice "unacceptable". / Photo: AFP/Noel Celis

The Philippines is celebrating today the second anniversary of its landmark arbitration award against China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea handed down by an arbitral tribunal in The Hague.

Crucially, the award legally nullified China’s expansive “nine-dash-line map” and “historic rights” claims which cover much of the South China Sea.

It also censured the Asian powerhouse for restricting Filipino fishermen’s access to the contested Scarborough Shoal as well as inflicting irreparable ecological damage due to its massive reclamation and island-building activities in the maritime area.

Until now, the Philippines remains sharply divided on how to leverage its arbitration award. Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte has repeatedly downplayed the relevance of the ruling by questioning its enforceability amid China’s vociferous opposition.

Soon after taking office in mid-2016, Duterte declared that he would “set aside” the arbitration award in order to pursue a “soft landing” in bilateral relations with China. In exchange, he has hoped for large-scale Chinese investments as well as resource-sharing in the South China Sea.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (L) with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping after a signing ceremony in Beijing, October 20, 2016. Photo: AFP/Pool

China has dismissed the award as a “piece of trash paper”, adopting a “three no’s” policy of non-participation, non-recognition and non-compliance vis-à-vis the award, which, according to international law formed under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), is final and binding.

Other major leaders in the Philippines, however, have taken a tougher stance and continue to try to leverage the award to resist China’s expanding footprint in the area.

The Stratbase-Albert Del Rosario Institute, an influential think tank co-founded by former Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs Albert del Rosario, hosted today a high-level forum on the topic at the prestigious Manila Polo Club.

Del Rosario oversaw the arbitration proceedings against China under Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno Aquino. He opened the event attended by dignitaries from major Western and Asian countries with a strident speech which accused China of trying to “dominate the South China Sea through force and coercion.”

He defended the arbitration award as an “overwhelming victory” to resist “China’s unlawful expansion agenda.”

The ex-top diplomat also accused the Duterte administration of acquiescence to China by acting as an “abettor” and “willing victim” by soft-pedaling the Philippines’ claims in the South China Sea and refusing to raise the arbitration award in multilateral fora.

The keynote speaker of the event was Vice President Leni Robredo, who has recently emerged as the de facto leader of the opposition against Duterte. Though falling short of directly naming Duterte, her spirited speech served as a comprehensive indictment of the administration’s policy in the South China Sea.

“Today, more than at any other time, our people must all be keenly aware of how foreign policy affects our daily lives,” warned Robredo, calling on Filipino people to be cognizant of the implications of the South China Sea disputes.

“This is the time for us to peacefully protest any effort to limit or control movement in these waters. As neighbors and friends, we must stand in opposition to military build-ups in the [South China Sea],“ she said.

Robredo thanked the proponents of the arbitration award as national heroes and patriots who have provided the Philippines a line of defense against Chinese aggression:

Supreme Court justice Antonio Carpio (L) points to South China Sea on a map while then Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario (2nd L) looks on. Photo: Reuters/Romeo Ranoco

“On behalf of the entire nation, let me say this – we, the Filipino people, are grateful for the bold fight you labored on behalf of all of us.”

“This is the day to celebrate that decision, and this is the day to start planning how we should move forward,” declared the vice-president, calling on the government to use the award as a key bargaining chip.

“Our hard-won victory was a victory of the rule of law and the UNCLOS framework, and provides the foundation for all future engagements in the West Philippine Sea. It also sets the stage for peacefully reclaiming a massive resource, much bigger than our archipelago’s total land area.”

“Sadly, since then, we have lost that advantage,“ she said, while noting the recent harassment Filipino fisherman have faced by Chinese paramilitary officials in contested areas of the South China Sea.

In June, the government called on China to stop confiscating the catch of Filipino fishermen in the contested area, saying at the time that the practice was “unacceptable.”

A protester holds a placard during a rally on Independence Day at the Chinese consulate in Manila, Philippines on June 12, 2018. Photo: Nur Photo/Richard James

Her keynote address, widely covered by the local media, was followed by an even more spirited speech by interim Supreme Court Chief Justice Antonio Carpio, another leading critic of Duterte’s foreign policy.

The chief magistrate, who also oversaw the Philippines’ arbitration proceedings against China, lashed out at Duterte for placing the landmark award in a “deep freeze.”

He called on the Duterte administration to leverage the award by negotiating maritime delimitation agreements with other Southeast Asian claimant states such as Malaysia and Vietnam which welcomed the arbitral tribunal’s nullification of China’s nine-dashed-line map.

He also called on the Philippines to expand its maritime entitlement claims in the area, in accordance to the arbitration award, by applying for an extended continental shelf in the South China Sea at the UN.

The event, which saw the gathering of leading statesmen, served as a potent reminder of the fierce internal debate in the Philippines over the current direction of its policy towards China. Despite Duterte’s best efforts, relations with China remain fraught with uncertainty and tension.

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