China-Philippines war over South China Sea? Duterte is fear mongering, says Hague tribunal point man Florin Hilbay



Claims that China will go to war with the Philippines if Manila stands up to Beijing’s “bullying” in the South China Sea are nothing but fear mongering by President Rodrigo Duterte.

That’s the view of the man who led the Philippines to victory three years ago when an international tribunal ruled against Beijing’s territorial claims in the waters.

In an interview ahead of next month’s anniversary of the ruling, Florin “Pilo” Hilbay, formerly the Philippines’ solicitor general, urged Manila to take a tougher stance in trying to enforce the decision. He said fears over what China might do to retaliate were overblown, and doubted that even the economy would suffer if tensions heightened. The Philippine economy did just fine when bilateral relations were at rock bottom during the 2010-2016 presidency of Benigno Aquino, Hilbay noted.

He said that a lack of action against Chinese intrusions in the sea had served only to embolden Beijing.

“What China has done is to test the [Philippine] administration’s ability to respond. And then they pushed the envelope forward, and forward. They have asked themselves, is the president going to complain if we do this? Is he going to complain if we are going to do that?” said the former chief counsel of the government.

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“He has never complained, and that’s the problem. Filipinos call it bullying, but basically the administration has consented to everything that China has done.”

Hilbay urged the Duterte administration to constantly call out the Chinese for any intrusions and rubbished suggestions by the president that doing so could provoke Beijing into war.

“Not necessarily sending out the navy, but maybe to send the Philippine coastguard,” he said. “Complain in public forums or even complain to the United Nations. I cannot imagine that leading to a shooting war with China.”

In 2013, the Philippine administration under Aquino filed a complaint against China’s claims in the sea to the Permanent Court of Arbitration, an intergovernmental organisation set up in 1899 to resolve disputes between countries.

Three years later, two weeks into the new administration of Duterte, the five-member tribunal based in The Hague ruled unanimously in favour of the Philippines.

In a 500-page ruling, the court made clear there was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources in the area, known in the Philippines as the West Philippine Sea.

Hours after the court’s decision, Duterte summoned his cabinet members and Hilbay for a meeting to discuss what tone the Philippine government should adopt.

“I remember that he said, ‘what we want is a soft landing’. I assumed that meant he was not going to brag about the decision. I thought that was a good decision because there was no need to brag about it. Everybody knew that we won anyway,” Hilbay recalled.

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Hilbay became the youngest solicitor general in Philippine history when he was appointed in 2014 at age 40. He topped the bar exam in 1999.

“What I didn’t realise was after the soft landing, he would make a U-turn. And it was reflected in the language of the president.”

In March, Duterte said he would not provoke China into war, fearing a massacre because China had “plenty of good quality weapons”.

“If we go to war against China, I would lose all my soldiers just as they are leaving for the war. It will be a massacre. We don’t have the capacity to fight them,” Duterte, formerly a Davao city mayor, said at the time.

The next month, Duterte arrived in Beijing for a forum on the Belt and Road Initiative, playing down tensions over the South China Sea. The two countries signed 19 agreements, including investment deals worth US$12 billion. The deals are expected to generate 21,000 jobs.

Hilbay said Duterte had “scared” Filipinos into believing that China would end up going to war with the Philippines if Manila tried to enforce the court’s decision. This “fear mongering” had worked, he added.

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He said Duterte was unlikely to try to enforce the court’s decision, because he was three years into his term already, but if he did the Philippines would have the support of foreign countries including the United States, Japan and Vietnam.

Indeed, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pledged in March to defend the Philippines in the event of “any armed attack” in the South China Sea.

Hilbay also called for immigration laws to be tightened so that every foreign worker coming to the Philippines was properly scrutinised. He proposed migrants be made to obtain work permits before coming.

Last month, a government investigation found at least 12,000 foreign nationals – believed to be mostly Chinese – were working illegally for online gambling companies in the Philippines.

Hilbay said some Chinese businesses felt they were “immune” from local regulations.

“[The Chinese] think that they can get away with a lot of things. They see that they are licensed to bypass local regulations,” Hilbay said.

He said Chinese influence in the Philippines would become a core issue in the 2022 presidential election.

“Duterte won on a single issue: he hates drugs,” Hilbay said. “I can imagine that someone running for election in 2022 will say that the Philippines are for the Filipinos, that the Philippines is not for the Chinese.”

However, he cautioned such an election platform could lead to racism.

“Politicians will do anything to win. They might take advantage of this growing sentiment that there are too many Chinese, and the Chinese are taking over [Filipinos’] jobs,” he said. “I can imagine a politician saying that, ‘my number one policy is to kick out the Chinese’. That’s a line that might work.”