Will PH walk the talk on sea ruling? Analysts skeptical

Will PH walk the talk on sea ruling? Analysts skeptical

MANILA, Philippines — President Rodrigo Duterte’s assertion of the Philippines’ legal victory against China over its sweeping territorial claims to the South China Sea has drawn mixed reactions from foreign policy observers.

“This move should not be taken lightly,” said Julio Amador III, senior research fellow at the Ateneo School of Government, after the President told world leaders at the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday that the Philippines “firmly rejects” any attempt to undermine the 2016 arbitration award that invalidated China’s sweeping claims over the South China Sea.

Amador said Duterte, in his first speech at the UN meeting, “has cemented the Philippines’ commitment to international law by raising to the UN the 2016 arbitral tribunal decision.”

While pointing out that the previous Aquino administration won the case, the Duterte administration, he said, “has now made it a core tenet of Philippine foreign policy, from which there will be no walking back.”

‘Follow this line’

“Succeeding administrations will have to follow this line,” he said.

In July 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague invalidated China’s sweeping claims in the South China Sea when it ruled in a maritime case filed by the Philippines. But Duterte shelved the victory in favor of economic investments from China.

Jeffrey Ordaniel, director of Maritime Programs at Pacific Forum, a Hawaii-based foreign policy research institute, said Duterte’s affirmation of the arbitral ruling was “a step in the right direction,” but he remained skeptical. “If the Philippines was being strategic, it should continue to reinforce the importance of the 2016 Arbitration award at every chance. But I’d caution the optimists,” Ordaniel said.

“It’s either of two things: Mr. Duterte’s UN speech signaled a change in the Filipino president’s approach — one that, from here on, is expected to increasingly emphasize the primacy of international law, or that speech was mainly the work of the Department of Foreign Affairs, and that a contradictory, spur-of-the-moment remarks are forthcoming,” he said.

Asean members’ support

The President had often been criticized for his supposed defeatist stance on the maritime dispute and his pro-China policies.

He should now strive to get the support of key members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to back up the Philippines’ efforts, said Euan Graham, senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies-Asia.

“Fellow Asean members are still unwilling to mention it directly in summit communiques. That was always going to be a stretch when the Duterte administration also appeared to softball it,” he said.

“After four years of keeping the award in his back pocket, and failing to leverage it to advantage with Beijing, Mr. Duterte appears finally prepared to own it … Now that Manila is behind it again, getting key Asean members to publicly back it should be the focus for Philippines diplomatic efforts,” Graham said.

“It doesn’t seem to have got the international attention it could have,” he added.

Maritime expert Jay Batongbacal, a professor and director of the University of the Philippines’ Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, said it remained to be seen how the Duterte administration would walk the talk.

‘Maximum leverage’

“How the administration follows up on this statement is even more important in order to show that this is not just a political stunt,” Batongbacal said.

“It’s the right thing to do, but it’s not the only thing that should be done,” he added.

Batongbacal said Duterte could have raised the award in 2017 when it could have been used for “maximum leverage” and the Philippines had the ability to lead.

“We need to keep in mind, that from 2016 up to yesterday, China [had] made great gains in the West Philippine Sea due to the PH accommodation of its demands. Raising the award a bit late has made it more difficult to push back against China’s efforts,” he said.

The United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany and other Western powers have been vocal in refuting China’s sweeping claims in the South China Sea and invoking the 2016 arbitration award.

Batongbacal said Duterte could have realized that it was now the “proper time” to bring up the award as the Philippines was already behind other nations.

“He probably thinks it’s safe to do so now because the Philippines doesn’t have to stick its neck out first,” he said.

The Philippines, he said, missed the opportunity to be at the forefront.

“The leverage would not only be vis-a-vis China, but also with countries we could gain support from. We could have a bigger influence on events,” he said.

“Instead we are essentially acting when our actions and options have been constrained/defined by the US-China geopolitical contest, which means options are actually limited. We have to maneuver between the two powers, instead of defining the path for ourselves,” Batongbacal said.