South China Sea Ruling Greets an Unsure New Filipino Administration

The captain of the Philippine Navy flagship Gregorio del Pilar, a refurbished US Coast Guard cutter, turns teary when other vessels at sea acknowledge the ship's presence on patrol. The feeling is of both pride and helplessness. It was the same ship that backed away from a standoff against China at the Scarborough Shoal more than four years ago.

It was that humiliating incident that forced the Philippines to play the last card in its hand: going to the Permanent Court for Arbitration, where on July 12 the court ruled for the Philippines and gave China a stinging rebuke for the intransigence it has displayed in the South China Sea.

The decision was an overwhelming victory that exceeded expectations for a country often belittled in the region and which had been itself shortsighted on external defense capability.

The problem may be that the timing has fallen under the new administration of President Rodrigo Duterte, not the one that began the legal fight in 2013. Two weeks into his job, Duterte has already fostered behind-the-scenes consternation in the United States and among other nations that have spent years attempting to present solid front in the face of Chinese provocation.

Remarks by Perfecto Yasay, the incoming foreign affairs secretary, shortly after the ruling was released have raised concerns. Yasay called on “those concerned to exercise restraint and sobriety” – far removed from the jubilation and euphoria that a nation like the Philippines has not felt in a very long time.

Credit went to former President Benigno Aquino III who was “steady all the way,” as a former cabinet member said, when others wavered in fear of China’s power in seeking to take over nearly all of the South China Sea. The maverick Duterte will now face a “litmus test on how to use this legal victory to the advantage of the Philippines,” said analyst Santiago Sta. Romana.

This may not be what Duterte had in mind, having said on the first day in his job just two weeks ago that he preferred a soft approach with China to avoid provocation. Yasay has been criticized for being a lightweight diplomat, others calling him a potential traitor whose words are far too accommodating to the Chinese and for creating havoc to foreign policy already in place.

President Duterte has political mileage behind him but broad policy is not his forte. He may soon have to reach out far beyond what he learned of city politics during his long years as mayor of Davao City, when he won his reputation by cracking down on crime and drugs.

He has said in off-the-cuff remarks – often changing his mind at his whim – that he was not too keen on modernizing the military, adding that new trainer jets soon to be delivered from Aquino’s purchases were only good for air shows. If he wouldn’t follow where his predecessor left off, how will he find the balance in dealing with China in the new chapter of this saga?

“The paradox in dealing with China,” said Sta. Romana, aChina expert in the Philippines, “is the more you insist, it will not yield, the hard line you take will produce more resistance. The easy part is done and we won, the hard part is dealing with China. How do you convince them to give up?”

Inexperienced or not, wavering or not, Duterte is said to have privately vowed to stick to the ruling in negotiating with China. He knows he has little wriggle room because the ruling defines the waters as the Philippines' EEZ, which the Philippine Constitution says cannot be compromised.

The first item Duterte must deal with would have to be the Scarborough Shoal, 400 km northeast of the country’s main island of Luzon – where the court said it “generates entitlement to a territorial sea” whereby both the Philippines and China have traditional fishing rights and which has already been rumored to be a Chinese target for the next military incursion. What would happen now if Filipino fishermen were to go back and reclaim their fishing grounds which have been barred by the Chinese since 2012?

The Chinese move blocking the fishermen from the Scarborough area was too close to home, forcing the Aquino administration to take a stand on territorial integrity. Having the Chinese push its way was like a “dagger to our heart,” said former armed forces chief Emmanuel Bautista. The dangerous possibility of having China install a base there similar to the land reclamation it has done to build seven artificial islands in the Spratlys, would be a breath away from the capital and major military bases.

The menace started in Mischief Reef close to the island of Palawan in the mid-1990s when the Philippines was trying to get on its feet in modernizing the armed forces that had too many internal problems from coups, insurgencies and corruption. It took the country more than two decades to realize how it had neglected upgrading equipment, buying new planes and ships, until the threat of China loomed and it was too late. China built a military-style installation on Mischief reef, cut off resupply lines to Filipino Marines on the Second Thomas Shoal, and stopped exploration surveys on the Reed Bank.

President Aquino had to be quick in purchasing a few items although knowing it could never be at par with China’s might and thus resorting to the legal option as the battlefield in which it could move.

“Going into arbitration was called a game-changer,” he said after the court’s decision. “We foresaw and experienced the pressures in taking this route; yet until the end we stood our ground.”

This may well be a lesson to a nation usually poor on political will, with Congress slow and stingy on the budget even after the United States long ago donated its two major overseas bases that were the basket for military aid. Many senior military officers sensed acrimony from politicians wary of their influence in a parochial power play. Although a modernization law was passed, very little headway came out of it.

“Modernization was a political decision and it had to be done,” said Bautista. “What was the point of passing the law?” Where now the world will be looking upon the Philippines in the arena of geopolitics, the burden will be on the new government to push forward the country’s national interest.