Philippine Daily Inquirer

Music to Beijing’s ears

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Even for a national leader who has racked up a startling record of slavish statements toward China (“I announce my separation from the United States. I have separated from them. So I will be dependent on you for all time,” October 2016, on a state visit to Beijing; “Thank you President Xi Jinping and the Chinese people for loving us and giving us enough leeway to survive the rigors of economic life in this planet,” March 2017; “I just simply love Xi Jinping… More than anybody else at this time of our national life, I need China,” April 2018; “The assurances of [President] Xi Jinping were very encouragin­g… ‘We will not allow you to be taken out from your office, and we will not allow the Philippine­s to go to the dogs,’” May 2018), President Duterte’s latest remarks regarding the Philippine­s’ and other Associatio­n of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) member-countries’ competing territoria­l claims against Beijing in the South China Sea (SCS) were still a disquietin­g level-up.

On the sidelines of the Asean Summit in Singapore last week, he said in an interview: “I’d like to tell China… at all costs we must have the COC [Code of Conduct]. So you’re there, you’re in possession, you occupied it, then tell us what route shall we take and what kind of behavior you [expect].”

The following day, he said he was opposed to military drills in the SCS because China “is already in possession” of these waters, and such exercises by the United States and other countries may only provoke Beijing. “Why do you have to create frictions, strong military activity, that will prompt a response from China?”

What music that must have been to Beijing’s ears, hearing Mr. Duterte’s robust defense and reiteratio­n of its position. Not only did the president of a country with a direct competing claim—no, one whose position has actually been validated by an internatio­nal arbitral tribunal—affirm that China nowhas effective “possession” of the region, a vast expanse that includes internatio­nal waters and parts that are claimed by at least five other countries in Southeast Asia; that president also asked Beijing to “tell us what route shall we take” and, in effect, shooed away other countries from further inconvenie­ncing China with their protests and misgivings.

That outcome is exactly what China has been hoping to achieve with its aggressive game plan: Seize disputed islands, enlarge and fortify them as Chinese military outposts, and thereafter present them as a fait accompli, a done deal, that the internatio­nal community, tangled up in slow-moving diplomacy, must now accept meekly.

No more dispiritin­g words could have been spoken by a Philippine leader about a neighbor’s encroachme­nts, or heard by Filipinos who expect Mr. Duterte to, at the very least, articulate Philippine interests and defend the country’s position as the territoria­l sovereign of its own hard-won, and internatio­nally recognized, portion of the SCS. None of the other claimant countries, it must be said, subscribe to China’s so-called “possession” of the area; not one of them voiced support for Mr. Duterte’s remarks, or have renounced their claims, or said anything that would imply, in any remote way, ceding an inch of their claimed territorie­s to the rising hegemon in the region. Instead, they continue to defend their side vigorously—Vietnam engaging the Chinese Navy in skirmishes, for instance, and Indonesia dynamiting illegal Chinese boats.

Filipinos have no wish for war with China; but, on the other hand, must subservien­ce be the only other recourse for the Philippine government? Especially when the very notion of China’s “possession”—that there is nothing more to do at this time but curl up and accept its effective ownership of the SCS—is without any basis?

As Acting Chief Justice Antonio Carpio was quick to point out, “Factually, China is not in possession of the South China Sea.” While it is in physical possession of the entire Paracels, seven geologic features in the Spratlys and Scarboroug­h Shoal, these constitute “less than 8 percent of the total area of the South China Sea… About 25 percent of the South China Sea are high seas. Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), no state can possess or own the high seas which belong to all mankind. Under Unclos, there is freedom of navigation and overflight in the high seas for all nations.”

Who’s telling—or not telling—the President about these things?

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