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China and our next president

By: Joel Ruiz Butuyan - @inquirerdotnet - Columnist/Philippine Daily Inquirer | October 25,2021 - 08:00 AM

One of the most important issues that voters need to consider in choosing our country’s next president should be the candidates’ respective positions on the West Philippine Sea (WPS) controversy. We need to know what every candidate intends to do with the international Arbitral Award that our country won against China. Will our candidate continue the path of the Duterte administration in setting aside the award, or will he or she choose an entirely different path?

This came to my mind after listening last week to an impressive lecture that showed how vitally important the Arbitral Award is to our country. Diplomat-lawyer Henry Bensurto Jr. delivered the lecture as part of the continuing legal education that lawyers need to attend for their license renewal. Bensurto was the Department of Foreign Affairs’ lead counsel sent to assist the Philippine legal team when the case was heard in the Netherlands.

One of my key takeaways from the lecture was the impact of the Arbitral Award on our exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which we have named as the West Philippine Sea. International law grants us exclusive rights to fish and exploit all marine resources, as well as to dig for oil and gas, in our EEZ.

When China officially made known in 1999 its “nine-dash line” claim over the South China Sea (SCS), it effectively asserted exclusive ownership over the vast body of water. The impact of China’s expansionist claim over the entire SCS was that the Philippines stood to lose 500,000 square kilometers of its EEZ. For an idea of how big our EEZ is that China wants to grab, just imagine that it’s so much bigger than the 300,000 square kilometers of total land area of all our 7,641 islands! We painfully witnessed the loss of parts of our EEZ when China started prohibiting our fishermen from their traditional fishing grounds in the Scarborough Shoal and Spratlys. About the same time that China was intimidating our poor fishermen, we experienced shortages in our country’s supply of galunggong and we began importing the fish from China.

Bensurto also noted that from the 1970s to the present, China’s strategy in the SCS has been to push for an expansionist policy. China first employs military aggression, and when it has succeeded in grabbing territory or body of water, it then insists on a diplomatic solution to the conflict, but no diplomatic solution ever takes place. This has been consistently shown when it grabbed the Paracel Islands and Fiery Cross Reef from Vietnam, and in its occupation or effective control of Mischief Reef, Reed Bank, Scarborough Shoal, and Ayungin Shoal from the Philippines.

The Duterte administration has either closed its eyes or has played along with China’s insistence on a diplomatic solution, even when China has forcibly occupied or imposed control on an area over which we have exclusive rights. Even when our fishermen have repeatedly complained of China’s bullying maneuvers, our government has chosen to sweep the complaints under the rug, repeatedly touting instead the supposed benefits we gain from Chinese loans and investments.

What have we heard from the presidential candidates so far on the issue of China and the Arbitral Award? Sen. Ronald dela Rosa and Sen. Manuel Pacquiao have not spoken on the issue. (In June, Pacquiao said he found President Duterte’s actions on the WPS lacking: “Nakukulangan ako doon…”) Former senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has stated that President Duterte is employing “the right way” in his dealings with China and in his rejection of the arbitral ruling. Mayor Isko Moreno would allow a joint exploration of our EEZ between the Philippines and China.

Sen. Panfilo Lacson declared that we need to align ourselves with foreign powers who share our interest in stopping China’s aggression. Vice President Leni Robredo said that she intends to collaborate with China in the areas of trade and investments, but “when it comes to the West Philippine Sea, we cannot deal with them without their recognition of the arbitral ruling.”

China has been able to advance its policy of creeping aggression in our EEZ with mere tokens of complaint from the Duterte administration. Will China’s luck continue with our next president? Our votes will provide the answer.

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TAGS: China, Exclusive Economic Zone, nine-dash line

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