At a forum marking the second anniversary of the ruling that many other nations disputing China’s nine-dash-line claims over the South China Sea have also hailed, a number of experts expressed dismay over the Duterte administration’s soft stance on the WPS.
One concern was that the Philippines’s failure to use the PCA ruling to enjoin China from further expanding in the West Philippine Sea—how Manila calls the area it claims in the vast South China Sea—could embolden Beijing to use aggression in pushing deeper and wider in other waters in Asia.
Another concern was that a tepid response to the ruling dampens efforts by concerned parties in pushing for a rules-based order in the region’s strategic waters.
Brahma Chellaney of the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi said the PCA ruling that favored the Philippines is helping create a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific region.
He said that prior to the ruling, China was “emboldened” not only to build on the WPS, but also to explore possibilities in the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean region “as if to underscore [that] nothing succeeds like aggression.”
“Make no mistake. What has happened in the South China Sea carries far greater long-term implications for the world, not just for this region, but for the world,” Chellaney said.
However, Chellaney said the Philippines’s current strategy in the WPS is “counterproductive” in that it cannot prevent China from expanding in the region, and undermines the country’s long-term strategic interests.
Makoto Seta, associate professor at Yokohama City University, agreed and said the current stance of the Duterte administration is “inconsistent” with the ruling.
Seta encouraged the Philippine government to push for the rule of law when it comes to the WPS. “I expect the Philippine government to emphasize the [importance of the] rule of law.”
Chellaney added that this means China should also receive sanctions for its aggression in the WPS.
He said, however, China was not meted out sanctions, contrary to when Russia annexed Crimea. Chellaney said Russia was made to pay a “heavy price” in the form of Western sanctions.
Reports said the United States and European Union imposed economic sanctions on Russian companies and individuals to act as deterrent to any similar move.
“China has paid no international price for its aggression in the South China Sea. And it sends a very wrong message to the world,” Chellaney said.
Benefits from ruling
Meanwhile, members of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) such as the United States, India, Australia, Japan and South Korea have already started to benefit because of the freedom of navigation that is included in the PCA ruling.
In fact, economist Bienvenido Oplas Jr. told the BusinessMirror, these are the same countries now benefitting from the ruling. The freedom of navigation allows their navy fleets to ply through the WPS without being barred from entry.
Oplas said the US, Australia and even the United Kingdom have invoked the freedom of navigation ruling granted to the Philippines even if the country itself seems reluctant to use it for its own ends, at least with regard to preserving its natural resources and protecting the livelihood of its fishermen.
“The ones who actually implement the PCA ruling are the developed countries. All the Philippine government needs to do is say yes, we still invoke it,” Oplas said.
Oplas said invoking the ruling means investing in drones and strong jet fighters, among others. These will allow the government to monitor and defend the Philippines’s coastlines.
As one of the countries in the world with the longest coastline, the burden falls on the Philippine Navy and Air Force.
He thinks some of the funds should be transferred to the Philippine National Police (PNP). Oplas said the Army is now performing functions that could be done by the PNP, such as dealing with internal organized groups such as the New People’s Army (NPA) and the Abu Sayyaf.
“The entire AFP [Armed Forces of the Philippines] is for external defense. So the likes of the Abu Sayyaf, these are internal factors, NPA is actually [an] internal factor. This is the reason why the PNP is becoming corrupt because they do not fight true criminals. What they do is go after people riding motorcycles without helmets, pedestrian [issues], enforce anti-tambay. These are very mundane tasks,” Oplas explained.
To generate more public funds, Oplas recommended that the budget for the Philippine Army be reduced and transferred to the Navy and Air Force. He also recommended the abolition of the Philippine Military Academy (PMA).
Oplas estimated that the state forks out around P50 million to P75 million for each PMA student—an unnecessary expense, in his view, given that there are many countries who are not military lightweights but have no military academies. These countries, however, rely on mandatory military drafting.
“The most battle-tested army in the whole world is Israel [and] they don’t have a military academy,” Oplas said. “Even Germany does not have a military academy; even Japan doesn’t have a military academy.”
Oplas suggested that the government sell its military assets, particularly Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City. He said a modest headquarters will do for the military in Metro Manila.
He said this can be turned into a Bonifacio Global City (BGC)-like development which is first class and open to the public. Prior to its development, Oplas said Fort Bonifacio was ugly and closed to the public.
However, any development of Camp Aguinaldo, Oplan said, should be done carefully so as to avoid the ills of the development of BGC. Oplas said the privatization benefits of BGC were limited because of subsidies.
“The problem was they butchered the resource. By the time it was privatized, they created housing for the poor, [subsidized] education, so the total revenue from the Fort Bonifacio privatization became smaller,” he said.
Filipino poor deserve justice
Meanwhile, in the same forum organized by Stratbase ADR Institute, Vice President Maria Leonor G. Robredo said the fishing grounds that could provide decent livelihood to small fishermen are being taken away by China either through brute force or unfair trade.
She told of the story of Renato Etac, a 40-year-old Filipino fisherman, who singlehandedly stared down Chinese Coast Guard rifles in Panatag Shoal in 2016, and of a fisherman named Danilo, who was left helpless as Chinese fishermen boarded his boat to get his best catch of the day.
“Former Philippine President Ramon Magsaysay once said, ‘That he who has less in life should have more in law.’ Such is true among individuals who are marginalized and disenfranchised. Asserting what is lawfully and rightfully ours for people like Renato and Delfin,” Robredo said.
“Rule of law ensures that even on the global stage, there is equality and inclusivity, so that every member of the human family has a voice,” she added.
The effort to uphold the ruling at the PCA is of utmost importance because fishermen, particularly those affected by the conflict in Panatag Shoal, cannot afford to wait.
Robredo said these fishermen are in dire need of livelihood assistance, especially because their traditional fishing grounds are no longer safe. This plea, she said, has grown louder especially amid the rising cost of living.
Data from the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) showed the inflation experienced by the bottom 30 percent of the population increased to 5.3 percent in the first quarter of the year, the highest recorded in four years for the poorest Filipinos. In Metro Manila, inflation reached 5.9 percent and in areas outside NCR, 5.3 percent.
“We also want the Filipino people to know that this is not an entirely hopeless situation, because there are remedies that will not require that we go to war,” Robredo said.
Apart from the fishermen, Robredo said the entire Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) would benefit from the leadership of the Philippines in the WPS.
Indeed, the road to attaining peace and justice in the WPS may be long and difficult. But experts agree that the Philippines must endure and fight for its rights.
It’s been two years since the PCA ruled in favor of the Philippines. Despite a soft stance adopted by the Duterte administration, the ruling stays and it will remain a victory not only for the country but for many other countries benefitting from the bounty of the West Philippine Sea.