There is an overwhelming majority of Filipinos who are unwavering in their desire to see the administration assert our country’s rights in the West Philippine Sea (WPS), despite some confusing statements from the office of the President.
The widespread sentiment of Filipinos against Chinese intrusions in the WPS has remained strong over the years. As shown in many surveys of both Pulse Asia and Social Weather Stations, seven to nearly nine out of 10 Filipinos want government to assert the Philippines’ historic victory against China in 2016 at the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague.
The Pulse Asia poll on June 2018, for instance, revealed 73 percent of Filipinos want our rights to our Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZs) asserted, while a SWS survey, released at the start of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit on November 2018, showed 84 percent “oppose the administration’s inaction in the face of China’s intrusions.”
In July 2019, during the 3rd anniversary of the landmark PCA arbitral ruling, a SWS survey showed 87 percent agreed with the statement, “The Philippine government should assert its rights over the islands in the West Philippine Sea as stipulated in the 2016 decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration.” (although the ruling refers only maritime rights) When the 4th anniversary was marked in July last year, the SWS said seven in 10 Filipinos agreed with the same statement.
The Filipinos’ overwhelming support for the Arbitral ruling and its enforcement, might have led President Duterte, as the country’s chief architect on foreign relations, to state very clearly the official Philippine position at the virtual forum of the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 22, 2020, which was especially meaningful because it was the 75th founding anniversary of the UN. The President, in a stunning speech that was praised by his supporters and critics alike, said:
“We must remain mindful of our obligations and commitment to the Charter of the United Nations and as amplified by the 1982 Manila Declaration on the Peaceful Settlement of International Disputes.
“The Philippines affirms that commitment in the South China Sea in accordance with UNCLOS and the 2016 Arbitral Award.
“The Award is now part of international law, beyond compromise and beyond the reach of passing governments to dilute, diminish or abandon,” he stressed.
“We firmly reject attempts to undermine it. We welcome the increasing number of states that have come in support of the award and what it stands for – the triumph of reason over rashness, of law over disorder, of amity over ambition. This – as it should – is the majesty of the law.”
Spoken before the perfect audience, at the gathering of the family of nations, there’s no doubt that President Duterte’s remarkable declaration is the official policy statement of the Philippines on the 2016 Arbitral Award.
It is thus very clear that the award cannot be diminished or undermined, or I would say, already “written in stone.”
What really matters, therefore, is what was said at the UN General Assembly. That ought to be given full emphasis. That is what must never be forgotten. That is what we Filipinos must unite on and focus on with all our energies as we move forward.
A united citizenry could extend full support to government, knowing that government is obliged by the Philippine Constitution to assert our country’s rights in the WPS. The Constitution’s Article 12, Section 2 states:
“The State shall protect the nation’s marine wealth in its archipelagic waters, territorial sea, and exclusive economic zone, and reserve its use and enjoyment exclusively to Filipino citizens.”
It is reassuring that senior administration officials like Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr., and National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr., have made official pronouncements in support of the constitutional provision.
But how should the Philippines go about asserting Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) rights is where we must now unite on and focus on.
An alliance of multi-sectoral organizations and individuals will soon be launched this coming June 12 to propose a national strategy to enforce the arbitral ruling and to promote the UNCLOS. Hopefully, our countrymen and our leaders can agree, unite and rally behind this national strategy, subject to further enrichment as more suggestions are considered. They are as follows:
1. Through our respective civil society organizations (CSOs) national or local to inform and educate their members and their respective families on the importance of the exclusive economic zone, continental shelf, the UNCLOS on EEZs, whether around our entire archipelago. Webinars, symposia, town hall meetings can be organized on a regional, provincial, city/town, and even barangay levels.
2. Include the West Philippine Sea, the UNCLOS and the Arbitral Ruling as part of mandatory study of the Philippine Constitution in high school and college, aimed at ensuring that Filipinos are aware of the West Philippine Sea, EEZs, and continental shelf as part of their national patrimony.
3. For our CSOs to contact their counterparts in Asean, Asia, and the rest of the world to form alliances aimed at promoting UNCLOS, and the sovereign rights of states over their EEZs and continental shelf.
Through the Philippine Alliance’s initiative, to initiate the formation of Asean, Asia, and Global Alliances to promote UNCLOS and the sovereign rights of states over EEZs and continental shelves., and the enforcement of the Arbitral ruling.
4. For other institutions, like media, church, business to help spread the truth about the UNCLOS and the arbitral ruling.
5. Assert our sovereign rights over the EEZ by pro-actively inviting joint-venture partners to exploit and develop the oil, gas and other mineral resources in the West Philippine Sea, and other EEZs around the archipelago, including the Philippine Rise (formerly known as Benham Rise). There must be no monopoly of only one joint venture partner but several multi-country partners in order that the West Philippine Sea exploration and development is spread out to as many powerful companies from developed countries.
6. The Philippine Navy and Coast Guard to protect and guard Filipino fishermen who venture to fish into the West Philippine Sea, especially in fish rich areas, against foreign intruders who are armed or backed-up by military personnel. This will be a pro-active assertion of our sovereign rights over the fishing grounds in the WPS as against a passive and withdrawing attitude over our sovereign rights over the EEZs, continental shelf and fishing grounds in WPS.
C. Political and diplomatic
7. Continue filing diplomatic protests everytime there is violation of our sovereign rights over our EEZs and continental shelves.
8. Join freedom of navigation exercises among the world powers and particularly among Asean countries that have overlapping claims in the South China Seas.
9. Prepare a contingency plan to prepare and train our able-abodied citizens, reservists especially, to help defend the state in the event that the country is forced to go into a defense of its sovereignty and sovereign rights. This is consistent with Article II, Section 4 of our Constitution.
10. Study the propriety of filing a resolution before the UN General Assembly and the UN Security Council that will further strengthen our position on our EEZs, especially in the West Philippine Sea and the Arbitral ruling.
Let us be more focused on what can unite us, and not on what may divide us, and speak with one voice on this very important issue to our lives, the West Philippine Sea and the Arbitral Ruling.
It is imperative that we focus our efforts to ensure that all Filipinos and the rest of the world know that the EEZs in the WPS and around our Philippine archipelago belong to us and that the arbitral award invalidated China’s expansionist claims in the South China Sea.