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Standing up to China (1)

By MARITES DAÑGUILAN VITUG .

First of five parts

ON the evening of July 12, 2016, journalists gathered in the press room of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), waiting for Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay to give the first official reaction of the Philippines to its sweeping victory in The Hague.

A couple of hours earlier, the Permanent Court of Arbitration had announced the tribunal’s decision, releasing the 500-page award on its website. The air was heavy with anticipation —and a hushed silence descended on the room as Yasay stood before the podium to read a prepared statement which was to be carried live on national TV. He appeared morose with no trace of a smile on his face.

The Philippines welcomes the issuance today of the Award by the Arbitral Tribunal…

Our experts are studying the Award with care and thoroughness that this significant arbitral outcome deserves. In the meantime, we call on all those concerned to exercise restraint and sobriety.

The Philippines strongly affirms its respect for this milestone decision as an important contribution to ongoing efforts in addressing disputes in the

South China Sea. The decision upholds international law, particularly the 1982 UNCLOS.

The Philippines reiterates its abiding commitment to efforts to pursue the peaceful resolution and management of disputes with a view to promoting and enhancing peace and stability in the region.

With his deliberate manner, Yasay took up three minutes to read the four-paragraph statement after which he hurriedly left.

It was a surprising response to a landmark decision that garnered accolades from international legal circles and allies of the Philippines. “Without any other context, you might have thought he was delivering a eulogy,” a columnist for CNBC observed.

In his home, Jose Rene Almendras, who was foreign secretary in the last few months of the Aquino government, watched Yasay on TV. He did not sense a whiff of elation in the statement, not a hint of joy. Yet this was the culmination of the first ever international arbitration case on the South China Sea and gave the Philippines its shining moment.

In the DFA under Almendras, their victory scenario was to begin with a statement that would reflect the significant gains of the Philippines, celebrate the rule of law as a means to settle disputes and achieve peace. It would then call for international support for compliance with the ruling because there was no global policeman to enforce it.

His predecessor, Albert del Rosario, under whose watch the arbitration case was filed, had already talked with representatives of various governments for statements of support if the Philippines won. They were expected to follow after the Philippines released its own statement. These countries were going to take the cue from the Philippines.

But none of this ever came to be. The Award was issued soon after Aquino stepped down.

Near Manila Bay, hundreds gathered to celebrate, released balloons and tossed flowers in the air hours before the ruling was released. When news on the victory spread, #Chexit, short for “China exit,” rippled on Twitter.

Demonstrators outside the Chinese embassy in Manila waved colorful streamers: CHINA, RESPECT THE RIGHTS OF OUR FISHERMEN! #CHEXIT, CHINA OUT OF PH WATERS! Some carried a makeshift fishing boat with a Philippine flag planted on it. Emblazoned on the boat was CHINA, OUT OF PH TERRITORY!

***

It has been two years since the Philippines’ overwhelmingly won in its maritime dispute against China. But during this time, the official narrative in the Philippines  has been one with strong defeatist tones.

From Day 1, July 12, 2016, when the international arbitral tribunal issued its decision invalidating China’s nine-dash line and clarifying the status of certain features in the South China Sea, this ruling has never been given the national attention it deserved.

It has not been used as a leverage in the country’s dealings with China. It has not been part of the country’s diplomatic arsenal.

In the two years that Duterte has been president, the Award has been brought up with China twice in bilateral consultations. Twice in two years. Foreign Secretary Alan Cayetano revealed this during a recent Congressional hearing called by the special committee on the West Philippine Sea.

The government says yes, we won but…

  • China is our source of economic deliverance. China will rebuild war-torn Marawi. It will invest heavily in the government’s ‘Build, Build, Build’ program. Millions of Chinese tourists will boost our tourism industry. China is our new source of weapons.
  • China is a dear friend who, unlike the EU, is nonchalant about the deadly drug war that has killed thousands and has led to a tidal wave of impunity.

These buts drown out the gains of July 12, 2016, weakening the Philippine position, making our country’s voice part of the chorus of approval of China in the region.

Today, as a journalist, I’d like to present a different narrative so that the public is not taken by the official story.

It is time we talk about a narrative that takes us back to the story of Philippines vs. China, the historic arbitration case that reverberated in various parts of the world.

It is time to go back to the almost two decades of back-and-forth with Beijing when our diplomats asserted Philippine rights over parts of the South China Sea—only to be rebuffed with the stock response that China had “indisputable sovereignty” over this vast area.

It is time to go back to the Award.

It is time to hear from experts, diplomats and the public on how to make use of our legal victory and start a national conversation on this vital issue. (to be continued)

 

(Excerpts from a speech delivered by multi-awarded journalist Marites Dañguilan Vitug at Davao launch of her latest book, “Rock Solid: How the Philippines Won its Maritime Case against China” at the Media Center of the Ateneo de Davao University this Aug. 3.)

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