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Finally, PH, China to talk on their conflicting claims

IT has been almost a year since the Arbitral Court in The Hague under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) issued its ruling upholding the Philippines’ claims in the South China Sea. That was on June 12, 2016.

Since then, however, the Philippines has made no move to follow up on the ruling which China has rejected outright, as it contradicts its claim to almost 80 percent of the South China Sea as marked by a nine-dash line looping south from Hainan island, east to Palawan, and then north along western Luzon to Taiwan.

In the words of President Duterte when he assumed the presidency in June, 2016, we may have won our case in the Arbitral Court but it is more important now to build on our friendly relations with China. Thus, all these months, the Philippines has not said anything about the Arbitral ruling, although it has stood firmly on its claims. Last April 21, for example, Secretary of Defense Delfin Lorenzana ignored Chinese challenges to his plane landing on Pagasa island in the Spratlys where there is today a thriving Filipino community.

Sometime next week, the two countries will hold the first round of a bilateral dialogue on their conflicting claims.

This meeting basically will try to see “where the difference lies,” according to Philippine Ambassador Jose Sta. Romana.

At this meeting, the Philippines is expected to stand by its claims as upheld by the UN-backed Arbitral Court ruling in 2016, including its rights to exploration in some islands west of Palawan and the rights of Filipino fishermen to fish in their traditional fishing grounds around Scarborough Shoal west of Zambales. China, on the other hand, is expected to assert its nine-dash-line claim to most of the South China sea, based on an old Chinese map. All the islands being claimed by the Philippines as well as several other Southeast Asian nations lie within this nine-dash maritime territory.

We expect no agreement to result from this first meeting next week, as it is meant only to see “where the difference lies.” This first meeting comes a week after the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation, at which China sought the support of several world leaders, including President Duterte, for an economic cooperation program linking their many nations.

All this time, China has been immovable in its claim to sovereignty and jurisdiction over most of the South China Sea, a position bereft of support from any other nation. There is hope on the part of some of our leaders that with China seeking support for its Belt and Road program, OBOR, it may be more open to adjustments, to agreements with nations like the Philippines, with their own legal positions.

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