History was made two years ago on July 16 when the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague ruled in favor of the Philippines and declared that China has “no historical rights” over what it claims to be within its “nine-dash line” map in the South China Sea.
The decision marked a pivotal term in the protracted decades-long dispute over the important sea lane that began in 1947 when China attempted to annex some 3.5 million kilometers of sea by drawing an arbitrary perimeter around the important sea lane on a map.
The nine-dash line is the biggest territorial grab since World War II that serves to secure food and natural resources to feed China’s population and fuel economic objectives. Through the South China Sea passes a big percentage of global maritime trade traffic. From it is harvested an untold quantity of marine resources, sustaining the livelihood of tens of millions in Southeast Asia.
Nearly 70 years later, the 2016 decision assailed Beijing’s stance as contrary to and in violation of international law as stipulated in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, or Unclos. It was a stinging rebuke to the Asian superpower, a turnaround for the so-far-futile diplomatic measures attempted by a number of countries.
Crucially, the ruling was lauded all over the world as a victory for justice and the rule of law, especially between nations of disparate clout and power. Filipinos also celebrated, some rightly painting a just-concluded David versus Goliath scenario, in the wake of what was generally seen as bullying by Beijing.
Filipinos won because we took a stand against a baseless claim, not with threats of war but with the sensible and peaceful path of arbitration before an international panel of neutral experts. It was a vindication unlike anything else in the history of the country’s territorial claims, our contribution to international jurisprudence and therefore a rules-based global order.
Today, two years later, we must again bring to the nation’s consciousness the groundbreaking Hague decision.
For its part, China refused to participate in the arbitration proceedings up until the end, opting to flex its political and economic muscle to coerce its smaller neighboring states. The militarization of the South China Sea even accelerated, all while the rest of the world watched. All this was no surprise.
What was surprising—and shameful—was our own government’s willful complicity in the wake of China’s tactics. Faced with reports of unmitigated aggression on Philippine territory and downright bullying of Filipino fishermen, administration officials took great pains just to defend its inaction.
Most recently, news spread that anti-ship cruise missiles and surface-to-air missile systems had been installed on reefs claimed by the Philippines in the South China Sea. It was a brazen move that earned the ire of so many, Filipinos and foreigners alike.
But we can’t go to war with China, Malacañang said, as if silence and war are the only available options. A cursory understanding of global economics should reveal that war is not even a viable option for China, an economy heavily reliant on the status quo of peaceful global trade. Some maritime commons it needs—the Malacca Strait and the Indian Ocean—are controlled by our allies, India and the United States.
Besides, it is foolish to suggest that no other option exists. As we have witnessed in the wake of the arbitration ruling two years ago, there is an overwhelming consensus as regards the validity of our position in the South China Sea. A way to challenge an aggressor that seeks to intentionally undermine a rules-based international order is to harness the political ascendancy by deepening existing relations and forging new ones.
Manila’s chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations last year thus represented a missed opportunity in this regard amid a surge in support for the arbitration ruling from member states. This opportunity could have been activated to consolidate a position for Asean as a body.
Instead, the deafening silence of Manila on the issue only served to weaken the regional bloc’s centrality in the context of guaranteeing security in the region.
There are other strategic ways. Minor powers like the Philippines can foster diplomatic linkages and economic activities with two or more competing major powers to a point that influences policy but without surrendering its sovereignty. This way, a small state does not compromise its economic position and can even advance its own political interests. Bilateral and multilateral dialogs with states and formations should also be explored.
In all these, vigilance from the citizenry is key. Two years after the epoch-defining decision, we need to call upon our government to stop kowtowing to Beijing supposedly as a way to maintain goodwill and jumpstart a revived economic partnership.
It is not a zero-sum game for the Philippines. There is a way to stand for a peaceful, rules-based international order without causing harm to the economy. Unchallenged aggression has no place in diplomacy. It is time to push back and stand up as a nation.