Chexit: The West Philippine Sea Is Ours but Now What?

Chexit: The West Philippine Sea Is Ours but What Now? Written by Lian Buan for SubSelfie.com.

China calls it a “farce.”

The Philippine government filed the case before an international arbitral tribunal back in January 2013, seeking to quash the validity of China’s historic claims — an imaginary nine-dash line that impedes on our exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and effectively declares most of our seas as theirs.

Their reason? Because they found and used it first.

In 2012, President Noynoy Aquino signed an Administrative Order to start calling it the “West Philippine Sea,” or what is within our 200-nautical mile EEZ, which covers the highly-contested Spratly Islands.

Three years after, the arbitration court has ruled: the nine-dash line is invalid. The West Philippine Sea, as it has always been, is ours. And in social media, we witnessed the height of the rallying cry Chexit—a combination of China and exit that demands an end to the creeping expansion in these disputed islands and emphasizes the victory of the Philippines in this landmark case.

‘Farce, Null and Void’

But China still calls it a farce. It is a country that seemingly does whatever it wants, evident in the towers, runways and satellites that they have built over the Kalayaan Island Group where the Philippines has put oil explorations into standstill for wanting to respect the arbitration process.

It has been said many times that the United Nations has no police powers, and that the result of the arbitration could not legally compel China to follow its orders.

That said, is China right? Of course not, but if there’s anyone who could make a sound legal decision look like a farce, it’s China.

The question is: will we let them?

With a Little Help from Our Friends

Time and time again, our leaders have turned to the international community for help. President Aquino did not pass up an ASEAN meeting without pleading our neighbors to put pressure on China.

A member of the Philippine delegation to the Hague, Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, once appealed:  “Will the world community allow a single state to rewrite the Law of the Sea, so this single state can exercise indisputable sovereignty to almost an entire sea, subject the high seas to its sovereign jurisdiction, and seize large areas of other coastal states’ EEZs, which are their legal maritime entitlements under both customary international law and UNCLOS?”

The intent is to turn the world against China, and make the negative opinion about them build into a critical mass that President Xi Jinping decides to mellow.

But that’s something that has never happened. Moreover, analysts are saying that with the ruling, China could act more aggressively and declare an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) that would allow them to respond militarily to “intruders.”

As the Beatles song goes, this is a story of “getting by with a little help from our friends.”

Ideally, the best way is to convince our powerful allies to impose sanctions on China. The Council on Foreign Relations once recommended that the US should “impose economic sanctions on Chinese energy companies” if it insists to drill in disputed waters, which it does.

But no one has dared sanction China, and we all know why.

International relations expert Professor Richard Heydarian offers another way. He said that by filing—and later, winning—an international case, the Philippines could “cajole other like-minded countries such as Vietnam and Japan to file similar cases against China—cementing a regional counter-alliance against Beijing based on international law.”

Simply said, if we get enough countries to fight China, especially countries more powerful than us, then we might have a chance to corner the giant into softening its stance.

This areal photo taken through a glass window of a military plane shows the dilapidated BRP Sierra Madre ship of the Philippine Navy anchored near Ayungin Shoal with Filipino soldiers onboard to secure perimeter in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea Modnay, May 11, 2015. Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang, the Philippines' military chief, has flown to Pag-asa Island, a Filipino-occupied island in the South China Sea amid territorial disputes in the area with China, vowing to defend the islet and help the mayor develop tourism and marine resources there. (Ritchie B. Tongo/Pool Photo via AP)
This areal photo taken through a glass window of a military plane shows the dilapidated BRP Sierra Madre ship of the Philippine Navy anchored near Ayungin Shoal, with Filipino soldiers onboard to secure perimeter in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea Monday, May 11, 2015. Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang, the military chief of the Philippines back then, has flown to Pagasa Island, a Filipino-occupied island in the South China Sea amid territorial disputes in the area with China, vowing to defend the islet and help the mayor develop tourism and marine resources there. (Ritchie B. Tongo/Pool Photo via AP)

China’s Better Friend?

Whatever happens next will be highly dependent on the man who’s taken over the wheel: President Rodrigo Duterte.

In his May 16 interview, Duterte said “If the arbitration judgment will favor us and if we cannot enforce, there has to be something… then I have to move… sasabihin ko sa (I will tell) China then let us talk bilateral.”

Duterte has been seen as someone likely to be more accommodating to China than Aquino.  A friendlier approach towards China seems to be reflected through his appointed guy, and our main person at the front, Department of Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay.

In a televised cabinet meeting last June, Secretary Yasay told the President of requests from foreign governments for the Philippines to issue a strong statement when the ruling comes out, to which Yasay followed up by saying “I am adverse to that idea.”

And true enough, when the ruling came out today, Yasay’s statement was seen by many as “weak, lukewarm.” For one, he has reverted to calling it the “South China Sea,” disregarding nearly four years worth of amassing a patriotic sentiment of calling it the “West Philippine Sea,” for whatever that’s worth for a country like us who sometimes can only count on patriotism to soldier on.

His statement reads, in part: “Our experts are studying the Award with the care and thoroughness that this significant arbitral outcome deserves. In the meantime, we call on all those concerned to exercise restraint and sobriety.”

Four days before, Yasay told Agence France Presse “we can have the objective of seeing how we can jointly explore this territory, how we can utilize and benefit mutually from the utilization of resources…,” which he later clarified as simply meaning “we have to wait for the ruling and study is implications.”

Historic Win

The Philippines’ victory is the first time an international tribunal has ruled on the territorial disputes. It could change the region’s dynamics, or could set as precedent for principles that govern international waters.

Before he left office, former DFA Secretary Albert del Rosario, also part of our delegation to The Hague, said that “international law is the great equalizer among states. It allows small countries to stand on equal footing with more powerful states.”

So China can call it a farce all they want, but we are backed up by an international court ruling that now allows us to stand among the tall. Will we hold our bearings, or will we bend?

We shall wait, watch and see.

[Entry 155, The SubSelfie Blog]

About the Author:

Lian Nami Buan.
Lian Nami Buan is the Managing Director and the European Bureau Chief of SubSelfie.com. She also leads the #SubStory and #TanawMindanao segments of the website. She was a news producer for GMA News for six years before she moved to England to take up her Masters in Digital Journalism at the Goldsmiths, University of London. She wants to shift focus to human rights, particularly indigenous people, women and migration. Whenever she has money, she travels to collect feelings for writing material. Journalism 2010, UST. Read more of her articles here.

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