Leila de Lima

Stop bickering over PH-China case, De Lima tells Aquino advisers

Mara Cepeda
Stop bickering over PH-China case, De Lima tells Aquino advisers

VICTORY. The Philippine team that flew to the Hague in November 2015 to defend the merits of the Philippines' case vs China.

Permanent Court of Arbitration

'A win is a win,' writes the detained senator. 'You should all just take a bow for the great service you have given selflessly to a grateful nation.'

Detained Senator Leila de Lima wants to put a stop to the public squabble among three lawyers who had advised the late former president Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III on Manila’s arbitration case against Beijing over the West Philippine Sea.

Writing from jail at Camp Crame on Friday, July 9, De Lima said she was “concerned” that retired Supreme Court (SC) associate justice Antonio Carpio, former solicitor general turned SC justice Francis Jardeleza, and ex-solicitor general Florin Hilbay were bringing up old wounds when the Philippines had already won its case over China.

De Lima, a former justice secretary, and the three warring Aquino advisers were part of the Philippines’ powerhouse team and delegation that defended the country’s historic case against China over the West Philippine Sea before the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague, Netherlands. 

She said Carpio, Jardeleza, and Hilbay should just pat themselves on the back for a job well done since they all contributed to the Philippines’ historic victory.

“Gentlemen, instead of this belated expression of difference in opinions and accounts made irrelevant by our singular and historic victory in the case against China, you should all just take a bow for the great service you have given selflessly to a grateful nation. PNoy could not thank all of you enough. We all could not thank all of you enough,” said De Lima.

“More than our individual contributions, our collective effort delivered a great victory for this country, regardless of the way each of us saw how it was achieved. A win is a win!” she added.

De Lima, one of fiercest critics of Aquino’s successor Rodrigo Duterte, has been imprisoned for four years over what she has described as trumped-up drug charges against her. 

The opposition senator is on trial for two conspiracy to commit drug trading charges. She was earlier acquitted of one of those 3 charges.

Why does this matter?

The bickering between Aquino’s advisers came just two weeks after the former president’s sudden passing shocked the nation on June 24. Aquino, 61, had been suffering for various illnesses and died due to renal disease secondary to diabetes. 

One of Aquino’s legacies is his decision to challenge in an international court Beijing’s expansive claim over the South China Sea. The Hague tribunal ultimately ruled that the West Philippine Sea, which is a part of the South China Sea, belongs to the Philippines.

Yet to this day, Chinese militarization of the West Philippine Sea continues.  Incumbent president Duterte has since been downplaying the arbitral victory in favor of getting loans and grants from his “friend” China.

A week after Aquino’s death, Carpio bared in his column on the Inquirer that Aquino’s advisers had been “bitterly divided” in bringing China to court. Carpio said one faction led by former foreign secretary Albert del Rosario was in favor of challenging China, while another group was supposedly against.

Carpio also said that Del Rosario and law of the sea expert sea expert Paul Reichler recommended the inclusion of the status of Itu Aba as an issue the arbitral tribunal should resolve. But there were alleged attempts to exclude it. 

Carpio did not mention names in the other faction. 

But in 2014, Rappler reported that Jardeleza deleted the relevant paragraphs and reportedly argued this would appease China and help restore relations with the Asian superpower. Jardeleza later said that high-stakes decision to include Itu Aba was risky because if the tribunal ruled it was an island, “there would be an overlap of the EEZs (exclusive economic zones).” 

Hilbay hit Carpio for the column, releasing a five-page response on Facebook saying the former SC magistrate’s column was filled with “falsehoods” and “inaccuracies.”

The former solicitor general said the Itu Aba dispute issue was just “simply a proxy” for the debate over the proposal to forge a joint development agreement with China. 

“I  rejected all these proposals for a compromise… I was against joint development because it is impermissible as a matter of constitutional law (my area of expertise). With specific reference to China, we simply can’t enter into an economic compromise with a country that doesn’t respect our full sovereign rights,” said Hilbay.

Hilbay then claimed Carpio was just an “observer” and “had no skin in the game” in relation to the West Philippine Sea case. – Rappler.com

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Mara Cepeda

Mara Cepeda specializes in stories about politics and local governance. She covers the Office of the Vice President, the Senate, and the Philippine opposition. She is a 2021 fellow of the Asia Journalism Fellowship and the Reham al-Farra Memorial Journalism Fellowship of the UN. Got tips? Email her at mara.cepeda@rappler.com or tweet @maracepeda.