"The President’s words were not a challenge; they were more of a remark out of exasperation."
Of course, retired Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio was glad to accept the debate challenge on the West Philippine Sea (WPS) hurled by President Duterte. He and his partners in this years-long WPS campaign have been waiting for the opportunity to make this the priority concern not only of the Duterte administration but of the entire nation as well. There was no better way to make it on top of the list than to goad (bait may be a better word) the Chief Executive no end to make that challenge. Having grown up at the same time and mixed with the same crowd in Davao for years, he must have known how to throw the bait and succeeded in worming his way.
But wait. In his earnest desire to get things his way, Carpio rushed into play. He failed or simply ignored what the President has been saying all along. His position is clear: we may have a ruling (award is how Carpio and his cohorts want us to describe it) in our favor but how are we supposed to enforce it under the circumstances?
Yes, the arbitral body invalidated China's nine-dash-line drawing which Carpio erroneously claims is the basis of the Chinese occupation of several features in the South China Sea (our WPS). However, it does not give us or any other claimant country sovereignty over any features (rocks, islets, etc.) in the disputed areas. There was no mention of any territorial rights for any country at all.
Yes, the ruling gives the nod to our claims over our exclusive economic zone (EEZ) as provided under UNCLOS as it also noted that no feature that China occupies in the area it calls the Nasha and Zhongsha archipelago generates its EEZ. There were other clarifications which in the end only tended to emphasize the complexity of making any claims of sovereignty or territorial rights over any of the features and spaces in that vast area.
In point of fact, the Chinese occupation as well as that of our own takeover of what we now call the Kalayaan Island Group (KIG) and that of other features similarly occupied or vigorously claimed by other countries such as Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, Brunei and Indonesia are all based on actual occupation. Or, as we continue to assert, each country's reading of the UNCLOS. Thus, this state of affairs, of occupation and/or claim as the case may be, will remain as such until the "lines/boundaries in that vast expanse of water are defined" and the claimant countries agree and respect the same.
Until that happens, the one and only question for all concerned to determine is enforceability. So, each country has worked its way to "strengthen" its position by whatever way it can short of prompting a shooting war. In our case, the way forward is clear: Occupy any feature we can, enhance our stay-in-place, get as much resource we can within our EEZ, on our own or in joint venture with any of the claimants, negotiate other means of developing the area and keeping it a zone of peace and development, and issue diplomatic protests and bring our position to international attention for redress of our grievances. Thus, we encourage our fisherfolk to fish in those areas, urge the coast guard together with the coast guards or fishery agencies of the other claimant countries to undertake continuing patrols and friendly maneuvers.
Discuss, negotiate, fish, develop, protest as needed will probably be our routine for years on end like all the other disputes involving other countries.
Other parts of the world have also done these to promote and protect their national interests. That is what diplomacy is all about, anyway. As Senate President Tito Sotto correctly noted, "negotiate or go to war are the only options the country has over the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) issue, so what do the President's critics want?"
So, given these caveats, it was clear to me and I suppose most of our people that the debate challenge hurled by President Duterte was not actually a challenge in the strict sense of the word. It was more of a remark out of exasperation. As our neighborhood pundit would often say: "Ano pa ba ang gusto mo? Ginawa na lahat. Kung may naisip ka pang paraan sabihin mo.( (What else do you want me to do. I have done everything possible under the circumstances. If you have any other suggestion please say so.)”
Carpio utterly ignored the very context of President Duterte's remark exposing his and his group's all consuming desire to move this WPS issue no matter what. To Duterte, this group was not after a real debate to clear the air and generate other ways to move forward on this issue. They were simply keen on keeping this issue on top of the public consciousness. Who are they protecting and what are they promoting anyway? So, why give them the platform to weasel their way around to the detriment of our relations not only with China but with the rest of the claimants and, of course, the general public?