For years now, China has been engaged in massive reclamation activities in the disputed maritime territories in the Spratly Islands in particular Panganiban Reef (Mischief Reef), Kagitingan Reef (Fiery Cross Reef), Zamora Reef (Subi Reef), Calderon Reef (Cuarteron Reef) Mabini Reef (Johnson South Reef), Burgos Reefs (Gaven Reefs) and McKennan Reef (Hughes Reef) – transforming these into artificial land masses with facilities that include runways and radars.
But while the United States issued statements warning China about its continuing aggression and conducted freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs), the position issued by a State Department official during the Obama administration was that the US does not get involved with territorial disputes, dismissing the disputed territories as “just rocks, anyway.”
In 2012, there was a standoff between China and the Philippines at Scarborough Shoal. We were advised by the State Department to leave and promised they will take care of requesting the Chinese to leave, too. Sadly, we left – but the Chinese did not. The Chinese even imposed a unilateral fishing ban in the area which they claimed was theirs.
The statement of US State Secretary Mike Pompeo signaling a dramatic policy shift on the maritime claims in the South China Sea was a welcome development, coming on the heels of the 4th anniversary of the July 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration decision that invalidated China’s expansive claims on the South China Sea based on historic rights to resources within the so-called “nine-dash line,” and declared such claim as unlawful under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
“The United States champions a free and open Indo-Pacific. Today we are strengthening US policy in a vital, contentious part of that region – the South China Sea. We are making clear: Beijing’s claims to offshore resources across most of the South China Sea are completely unlawful, as is its campaign of bullying to control them,” Secretary Pompeo stated, also citing the 2016 PCA decision that rejected China’s maritime claims as “having no basis in international law. The Tribunal sided squarely with the Philippines, which brought the arbitration case, on almost all claims.”
While the statement from the US has been a long time coming, it is still a welcome development. It took a Republican administration under President Trump to make the bold shift in policy instead of doing a “Pontius Pilate,” washing their hands off the issue like the previous administration. Significantly, Secretary Pompeo’s statement received bipartisan support from both Republicans and Democrats in the US Congress – an indication that the US now recognizes the importance of the PCA decision. In fact, several claimant countries are now using the decision for their purposes, emboldened by the US support.
There are some inane people trying to denigrate the value of the arbitral ruling, even criticizing Defense Secretary Lorenzana for saying China should comply with the PCA ruling and abide by the UNCLOS, and Foreign Secretary Teddy Locsin for saying the award is “non-negotiable” – calling both of them American lackeys. The fact is, they are merely echoing what President Duterte has been saying all along.
The independent foreign policy adopted by President Duterte to reach out to China at the beginning of his term was a wise move with the end in view of restoring friendly relations and peacefully negotiating the issues surrounding the West Philippine Sea. The president has been consistent and pragmatic, saying an armed conflict was not what we want – declaring war was not an option. His main objective was to protect our fishermen who were being driven away by the Chinese Coast Guard and whose livelihoods were dependent on having access to the area. A wise and sound decision, especially since the president believes that like many other countries, we must live with our neighbor and maintain good relations.
But even while the administration pursued bilateral talks with China, President Duterte was steadfast in raising the issue of the arbitral award in Beijing last year, asserting our claim in the West Philippine Sea and telling Chinese President Xi Jinping that the arbitral ruling is final, binding and not subject to appeal.
Clearly, what the United States is saying simply echoes our position that nations must adhere to a rules-based international order, maintain peace and stability in the region and seek to resolve disputes in a peaceful manner – except that this policy shift from a superpower like the US just adds more teeth to what we have been saying from day one.
The continued aggression of China in the region plus intelligence reports that it purposely withheld information about the pandemic likely precipitated the shift in US policy, especially since the impact of COVID-19 to the global economy in the past four months has been devastating, to say the least.
In fact, survey results released by the Social Weather Stations showed that 70 percent of Filipinos agree that the government should assert its rights over the West Philippine Sea, while 82 percent believe the Philippines should form alliances with countries that are ready to defend our maritime territorial rights. Three out of five Filipinos also believe China held back information about COVID-19 and want it held accountable.
It is clear, Secretary Locsin’s continuing dialogue with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi is a must since both sides have agreed to “continue to manage issues of concern and promote maritime cooperation in friendly consultation.”
Undoubtedly, these developments can only bring us and the ASEAN nations closer to resolving the issues diplomatically, and ultimately bring peace in the region.