IT’S OUR SEA
The United Nations (UN) Arbitral Tribunal has finally decided that the Philippines has exclusive sovereign rights to West Philippine Sea (in the South China Sea) and that China’s “nine-dash line” claim over disputed areas that included the Spratly Islands is invalid.
The Tribunal, based in The Hague in Netherlands, issued its Award Tuesday after several months of hearings and submission of documents on the arbitration case that the Philippines filed against China over the disputed South China Sea.
The Tribunal also said that China has violated Philippine sovereign rights when it, among others, built artificial islands and prohibited Filipino fishermen in areas within the country’s own exclusive economic zone.
The Philippine government welcomed the decision, even as Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr., in a press briefing, reminded rejoicing Filipinos and those concerned “to exercise restraint and sobriety” over the controversial issue.
Various rallies and events were held on Tuesday across the country in anticipation of the ruling.
Other nations are also interested in the ruling since there are several other countries like Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei that have overlapping claims in South China Sea.
“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,” Yasay said.
He said the decision upholds international law, specifically the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos).
But Yasay said the Philippines also reiterated its “abiding commitment to efforts of pursuing the peaceful resolution and management of disputes with the view of promoting and enhancing peace and stability in the region.”
He added: “Our experts are studying the award with the care and thoroughness that this significant arbitral outcome deserves.”
President Rodrigo Duterte last night called a Cabinet meeting to discuss the country’s next action after winning the arbitration case.
Government and business leaders in Cebu welcomed the ruling, with Cebu Vice Gov. Agnes Magpale saying that Filipinos could now proudly declare that the West Philippine Sea is rightfully owned by the Philippines.
“I’m just happy that the decision is out before the eyes of the world. The whole world now knows (that the West Philippine Sea is ours). At least we have that edge,” she said.
She said she could only hope that China would honor the decision.
China was, however, absent throughout the proceedings, refusing to recognize the case.
Beijing yesterday declared it “does not accept and does not recognize” the ruling by the UN-backed tribunal, China’s foreign ministry said.
“The award is null and void and has no binding force,” the ministry said. “China neither accepts nor recognizes it.”
The UN Arbitral Tribunal, however, said it has “concluded that there was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources within the sea areas falling within the ‘nine-dash line’,” its statement released to the media said.
“Having found that none of the features claimed by China was capable of generating an exclusive economic zone, the Tribunal found that it could — without delimiting a boundary — declare that certain sea areas are within the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines, because those areas are not overlapped by any possible entitlement of China,” it added.
Violation of sovereign rights
The Tribunal also said that China has violated Philippine sovereign rights.
“Having found that certain areas are within the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines, the Tribunal found that China had violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights in its exclusive economic zone by (a) interfering with Philippine fishing and petroleum exploration, (b) constructing artificial islands and (c) failing to prevent Chinese fishermen from fishing in the zone,” the tribunal statement said.
“The Tribunal further held that Chinese law enforcement vessels had unlawfully created a serious risk of collision when they physically obstructed Philippine vessels,” it said.
The Spratly Islands and its many reefs are being claimed by China under its “nine-dash line” claim that covers nearly the entire South China Sea including parts of the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
China insists it has “historic rights” in asserting its ownership of the region believed to be rich in natural gas resources and also a vital trade route for international cargo ships.
Philippines filed its case in January 2013 following a tense standoff between Chinese and Philippines ships at Scarborough Shoal in April 2012.
Since the initiation of the arbitration case, China has conducted several massive reclamation projects to turn submerged reefs into artificial islands capable of hosting military structures and equipment.
China’s reclamation activities have alarmed other Southeast Asian nations, particularly Vietnam, that also have competing claims in the South China Sea.
Cebu seventh district Rep. Peter John Calderon said the problem now would be how to enforce the decision.
“If they (China) won’t honor, what can we do? But hopefully, it will give the Philippines, in the future if there are other conflicts, the legal basis that in international law, we are right,” Calderon said.
Cebu fourth district Rep. Benhur Salimbangon, on the other hand, said that while he was happy with the decision, he would support President Duterte’s openness to hold bilateral talks with Beijing.
“I agree with President Duterte that the development in the area can be done through a joint venture with China. Let’s leave it with the president because he has plans. Let’s wait. We will support whatever is the decision of the president,” Salimbangon said.
Just the beginning
Businessman Philip Tan, the past president of Mandaue Chamber of Commerce and Industry (MCCI), was also cautious, saying the victory at The Hague was just the beginning of another process.
“We may have won the battle, but how a peaceful resolution can be arrived at is the biggest challenge,” he said.
Tan added that everyone should just keep calm and allow President Duterte to come up with a “win-win situation.”
MCCI President Glenn Soco also expressed hope “for a peaceful and diplomatic process in advancing our foreign relations with China.”
But for Jaime Paglinawan, chairman of the Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan) in Central Visayas, the decision is a victory also for the Filipino fishermen who have been deprived to fish in the West Philippine Sea.
Paglinawan called on the Philippine government to defend the right of the fishermen who has been affected in this matter.
The militant group also called on the Duterte administration to strengthen the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and not to solely rely on the United States (US) to defend it seas, even as he stressed that any dispute with China should still be dealt through diplomatic means.
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