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Arbitral ruling is truly historic

July 12, 2023 People's Journal 238 views

A proud moment it certainly was for the Philippines in 2016 when it showed the world that a tiny Third World country can stand up to a giant bully and win a landmark case in an international tribunal.

Yesterday’s 7th anniversary of The Hague international arbitral ruling invalidating China’s claim over almost the entire South China Sea brought to mind the mixed and contrasting reactions to the Award as it was handed down.

It was obvious the maritime ruling that declared as baseless the nine-dash line claim of China intensely angered China’s officialdom, prompting a barrage of toxic, though mostly ridiculous, rhetoric intended to discredit the ruling and undermine the UN-backed tribunal and the Philippines as well.

In the days before and after the verdict was handed down, China’s propaganda blitz reached fever pitch denouncing as illegal the arbitration court, with Chinese ambassadors around the world writing adverse opinions about it and sending them to local newspapers. Reports also abound that China tried desperately to get support from many countries to rally to its side.

Why China resorted to extensive rhetorical firepower in a reckless fashion was quite understandable. It had to extricate itself from a tight corner it placed itself into, without losing face especially in the eyes of its own people.

Our then government gave China the rhetorical space for it to back off from the cliff or ledge it had gotten onto. Then President Duterte decided not to gloat about the Award and told DFA to give it a “soft landing” so as not to further anger China.

But while some foreign relations analysts agree that it was right not to gloat about our legal triumph and instead be magnanimous in victory and not be provocative so as not to agitate China, many found the late Perfecto Yasay Jr., who was then DFA Secretary, a bit too sad as the arbitral ruling came out.

His sad look seemed weird; it’s as if the Philippines lost the arbitration instead. In his “call for restraint and sobriety,” a somber-looking Yasay had set a gloomy tone which many found strange for such a joyous and momentous occasion for the Philippines.

The irony becomes clear when one compares it to another joyous event at that time: Portugal’s victory over France at the Euro 2016. Winning Europe’s football tournament had people in Portugal jumping in joy, while winning a historic Award was met here with a call for sobriety instead of massive celebration. But overseas Pinoys were undeterred, they held victory rallies in many parts of the world.

But in fairness to Duterte whose policy to appease China was pursued for the entire duration of his presidency, he expressed support for the arbitral ruling when and where it mattered most – at the virtual forum of the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 22, 2020.

“The Philippines affirms that commitment in the South China Sea in accordance with UNCLOS and the 2016 Arbitral Award,” Duterte told the UN. “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,” Duterte said.

It was spoken before the perfect audience, at the gathering of the family of nations which was especially meaningful as the UN was celebrating its 75th founding anniversary. With that, there’s no doubt the arbitral ruling is truly historic. ANGELO TUGADO

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