Today marks the fifth anniversary of the historic ruling of The Hague on the South China Sea Arbitration. Though the ruling favored the Philippines, Filipino fishermen continue to fear aggression from foreign vessels when they go out to sea. So what exactly is the Hague ruling and why should you care?
What is the South China Sea Arbitration?
In 2013, the Philippines brought China to the international court officially known as the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague concerning territorial disputes on the South China Sea.
An intergovernmental organization located in The Hague, Netherlands, the PCA is the oldest international conflict resolution organization in the world, having been established right after the first Hague Peace Conference. For the South China Sea Arbitration, the PCA appointed a five-judge panel composed of members from Ghana, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Poland.
In 2016, four years after the case was filed, the international court ruled in overwhelming favor of the Philippines. According to the PCA, China’s claim on the disputed territory based on “historic rights” had “no legal basis.” The PCA further ruled that China violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea through the construction of artificial islands and the interference with the Philippines’ maritime activities.
What prompted it?
The territorial disputes over the waters and islands in the South China Sea have been ongoing for many decades. It started when Japan relinquished its claims over the Spratly Islands and other territories without indicating successor states in 1951. Since then, many countries including the Philippines, China, Vietnam, and Malaysia filed claims over the territory.
In late 2012, things started coming to a head as the Philippines and China found themselves in a standoff in the Scarborough Shoal that lasted over two months. The Philippines under the administration of then-President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino then filed a case to the international tribunal court in January 2013.
How did China respond?
From the very beginning, Beijing has rejected the Philippines’ notification and statement of claim, the arbitration initiated by the Philippines, and the PCA’s ruling. Up to the present, China remains by the same stance.
LOOK: 44 Chinese vessels still moored and anchored at Julian Felipe Reef as of March 29, 2021. | via @jairojourno
Photos from NTF-WPS pic.twitter.com/w7vFdJkDj6
— Rappler (@rapplerdotcom) March 31, 2021
Since the ruling, the Philippines has continuously observed the increasing presence of Chinese military vessels in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ). This zone should be off-limits to foreign vessels, but just last March 2021, over 200 Chinese vessels were spotted in Philippine waters.
How did the Philippines respond?
A big win for the Philippines, the ruling came out in 2016 just a few days after President Rodrigo Duterte assumed his current position.
In response to the increasing presence of Chinese vessels in Philippine waters, the Philippines under the Duterte administration has issued over 120 diplomatic protests. Last month, foreign secretary Teodoro Locsin issued a statement in observance of the ruling’s anniversary: “We firmly reject attempts to undermine it; nay, even erase it from law, history and our collective memories.”
But has anything really changed?
According to US-based think tank Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), the Philippines has seen a “substantial increase” of patrolling boats in the disputed waters. As of May 2021, Philippine military vessels have paid 57 visits to the disputed territory, in contrast to a meager seven visits in the last ten months.
On the surface, the conflict seems to be at a stalemate. But many experts and analysts believe that the Philippines may be experiencing a loss. “What we lost is time to articulate our victory over China, and to start mobilizing a coalition of nations willing to enforce the ruling,” Renato de Castro, professor of international studies at the De La Salle University, told Benar News.
Vice President Leni Robredo has also issued a statement on the ruling’s fifth anniversary, describing the event as “five years of missed opportunities.”
“Since then, national leadership has yet to fully flex the ruling as an instrument to pursue our national interests, failing to invoke it in strong enough terms in the forums that matter most,” Robredo said.
Which countries are allied with whom?
Many member states have supported the Hague ruling, but haven’t necessarily taken any sides. Countries like Italy, France, and Australia have positively acknowledged the ruling, but haven’t called for compliance by the parties involved.
Others like the United States, Indonesia, and Vietnam have supported the Philippines and called for the ruling to be respected. The United States, for example, has expressed strong support for the Philippines. On the ruling’s fifth anniversary, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated their support: “We also reaffirm that an armed attack on Philippine armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft in the South China Sea would invoke US mutual defense commitments under Article IV of the 1951 US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty.”
Meanwhile, China has also gathered allies, right after the ruling was announced. This includes Vanuatu, Lesotho, and Palestine.
Why should you care?
First of all, Filipino fishermen may lose their livelihood or may even be in danger amid potential clashes. Filipino fishermen like Randy Megu of Pangasinan would never be able to escape their fear of Chinese vessels tracking his every movement out at sea.
In the bigger picture, a standoff just like what happened by the Scarborough Shoal may be on the horizon, especially with the ever-increasing presence of Chinese militia over Philippine waters.
Experts believe that should the Philippines’ “weak approach” continue, other parts of the Philippine waters may be taken over by other countries in the future.
This means we would lose control of many of our natural resources and, potentially, some of our freedoms. Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton shared her worries about the dangers the Philippines is facing with Rappler. “I think that there’s a real danger that, left unchecked, the Philippines – no matter who the leader is – would find itself increasingly unable to act without Chinese approval. I don’t think that’s the kind of future that the Philippines would like,” she said.
What can the Philippines do next?
Last July 2020, a survey by SWS showed that 7 out of 10 Filipinos want the Philippines to assert its rights over the disputed territories. But as many have observed, little has happened since then.
According to different experts, there are quite a few things the Philippines as a country can do next, including continuing discourse on the ruling to call international attention and criticism to Beijing’s dismissal and demanding that the ruling be incorporated into the South China Sea Code of Conduct between ASEAN and China.
But for regular people like you and me, what we can do next for the Philippines is (1) to call attention to the ruling across the world and within the Philippines and elaborate on its importance and (2) to vote for a future leader who would not be able to ignore the ruling.
While you still can, make sure to register to vote for the upcoming elections in 2022.