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Euphoric but realistic

On July 12, exactly a month after celebrating our 118th independence day, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at The Hague issued its much-anticipated ruling on the South China Sea controversy which the Philippines brought before the intergovernmental organization against China.

The historic ruling validated our historic claim to the West Philippine Sea. The Hague tribunal rebuked China’s controversial ‘nine-dash line’. It concluded that there was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources within the sea areas falling within the ‘nine dash line’.

What I found most compelling is the decision is the tribunal’s conclusion that China infringed upon Philippine sovereignty: “Having found that certain areas are within the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines, the Tribunal found that China had violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights in its exclusive economic zone by (a) interfering with Philippine fishing and petroleum exploration, (b) constructing artificial islands and (c) failing to prevent Chinese fishermen from fishing in the zone.”

This is clearly a big victory for the Philippines, and our people are justified in their euphoric response to the ruling of the PCA. It is a vindication of our long-standing position that the West Philippine Sea is part of our national territory.

Congratulations to our brilliant diplomats led by former Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario!

The international reaction has been unified in the tribunal’s declaration. The consensus seems to be that the ruling was a “huge win” for the Philippines and the respect for international law and a blow to China’s claim.

China, as expected, denounced the ruling. Its Foreign Ministry, in a statement, declared that “the award is null and void and has no binding force.” China has refused to acknowledge the authority of the PCA and did not participate in the arbitral proceedings which we initiated on January 2013.

President Xi Jinping was quoted as saying that “China’s territorial sovereignty and maritime interests in South China Sea, under any circumstances, will not be affected by the award.”

I believe that the ruling is historic and significant to our diplomatic strategy to claim what is ours by law and history. The ruling tells us, China and the world that these contested parts are part of international waters or are integral to our territory.

We have always believed that our claim has basis in history and international law as upheld by the ruling of the PSA.

But, while our euphoria is understandable, we need to be realistic about the impact of the ruling.

The ruling, for one, is difficult to enforce. As many international law experts opined, there is no international police to compel China to respect the award and it seems wishful thinking to consider that China would just give up its claims to what it claims are its territories.

We also need to be careful that the situation does not escalate into a military confrontation between and among neighbors in Southeast Asia and China. As a peace-loving member of the international community, we should always prefer diplomacy over war.

Despite this conflict with China, we need to remember it is an important trade partner in the region. According to a Manila Bulletin article written by Jin Yuan, the economic and commercial counselor of the Chinese Embassy here, “the bilateral trade volume between China and the Philippines in 2015 reached USD 45.65 billion, registering a growth rate of 2.7%”. China also accounts for 10% of our exports and about 20% of Philippine imports.

In this sense, I hope government takes measures to balance the need to pursue our territorial claims diplomatically, on the basis of the PCA ruling, and the significance of our historic, economic and cultural relationship with China.

I also call upon our Foreign Affairs officials to ensure the safety of our Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) working in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macau and other Chinese territories from possible violent retaliation from their employers and Chinese citizens. I have already received reports that OFWs in Hong Kong have been verbally berated because of the ruling.

The ruling surely ignited animosity between the Philippines and China, but I think it is important to maintain calm and see the big picture here. I will agree with Counselor Jin Yuan that “between China and the Philippines, there will always be more hope than obstacles, more consensus than differences.”

(For comments/feedback email to mbv.secretariat@gmail or visit www.Mannyvillar.com.ph.) (Senator Manny Villar)

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