MANILA – The Philippines may have lost credibility and valuable support for its arbitration win against China’s sweeping claims in the South China Sea after the government decided to shelve the victory for the past 3 years, an analyst said Tuesday.
A United Nations-backed court in 2016 junked Beijing’s “historic rights” to nearly 90 percent of the waterway, but President Rodrigo Duterte set aside the ruling as he sought investments and loans from Beijing.
Recently, the President said he will raise the arbitration triumph when he meets Chinese President Xi Jinping next week, following the reported passage of Chinese warships in Philippine waters.
“They (China) have actually gotten most, if not all, they needed from us: our silence, the ability to use our [exclusive economic zone], the ability to develop their islands without interference or without even a peep from us,” said Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines (UP) Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea.
“It’s hard to imagine what else we can get from them this late in the day,” he added.
China, which has refused to recognize the ruling, may also try to keep Xi and Duterte’s talks on the arbitration under wraps “because it will be seen as a weakness,” said Batongbacal.
“It now depends on how the Philippines will bring up the issue, what kind of matters, what kind of context they will raise this issue on,” he told ANC.
Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia also claim parts of the South China Sea and have implemented policies consistent with the ruling, noted Batongbacal.
He noted that the Philippines may have lost the support of these allies after the Philippine government decided not to use the arbitral ruling immediately.
“It is the support of other countries that really strengthens the leverage. But if we isolated ourselves from other countries by simply dropping this in 2016 and not working on building up that support, then we will have a much harder time in using this arbitral ruling to get any concessions from China,” said the analyst.
“Our independent foreign policy, so called, which alienated a lot of friends and allies, in a way isolated and weakened our position because now we may not have enough support from those friends and allies when it comes to the arbitral ruling. Also, in terms of credibility, it definitely would have suffered some because we were so strong in trying to build up support prior to 2016 and then afterward, we suddenly dropped it. That makes it harder to use the arbitral ruling as leverage.”
“Our islands are literally at the gateway to the South China Sea. It’s up to us to determine whether we’re a real, active gateway with the ability to independently say what goes on in this area, or whether we’re just going to be a doormat where everybody passes and tramples on.”
Competing claims over the South China Sea are a point of regional contention because trillions of dollars of goods pass through it, and rich petroleum reserves are thought to sit deep beneath its waters.
China did not ask for clearance before several of its warships passed through the Sibutu Strait in the Philippines’ southern tip in 4 instances from February to July, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said earlier this month.
Two Chinese research ships were also spotted by a US-based maritime expert in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone in August.
Duterte will hold his 8th bilateral meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Aug. 29 to discuss “issues of mutual interest” to both countries, DFA Assistant Secretary Meynardo Montealegre told reporters.
“I’m going to China to talk. Did I not tell you before, that before my term ends, I will be talking about the [South] China Sea?” Duterte said earlier this month.