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Malacañang against raising Hague ruling before UN for fear of hurting China ties

MANILA, Philippines – Malacañang opposes raising the Hague ruling before the United Nations General Assembly because it could hurt the Philippines' "friendly" ties with China.

This was how Presidential Spokesman Salvador Panelo explained why Malacañang was rejecting the suggestion of former foreign secretary Albert del Rosario.

"It may only have an adverse effect on our continuing diplomatic and friendly talks on the issue," Panelo said in a statement on Friday, September 20.

He reiterated that bringing up the historic 2016 ruling "is an exercise in futility" because the UN has no mechanism or international police to enforce the arbitral award.

What proposal? Del Rosario had earlier urged the Duterte government to call for the UN General Assembly to support the Hague ruling, the 2016 legal victory of the Philippines against China's claim to the entire South China Sea.

This is because the Philippines is set to address the UNGA in New York on September 28.

Del Rosario said many powerful states support the Hague ruling, like the US, Japan, Australia, the European Union, and some fellow members in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

China has consistently ignored the Hague ruling.

'Futile' to pressure China? Panelo downplayed the impact of gathering UN support for the Hague ruling.

"The proposal of Mr Del Rosario would, at most, only give international pressure to China relative to our conflicting claims in the West Philippine Sea," said Panelo.

But the Philippines' lead counsel against China, Paul Reichler, has said that putting international pressure on China could do the trick.

"How do you get a big and powerful state to comply with its obligations especially if you are a much smaller and much less powerful state? It has to be by joining forces with other states that have similar interests in encouraging China, in pressuring China, to comply with international law and to respect their sovereign rights," Reichler told Rappler in a previous interview.

He had said the Philippines, for instance, can join forces with Indonesia, Vietnam, and other Southeast Asian states "that have identical interests with the Philippines."

Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr, meanwhile, had doubted Del Rosario's proposal, saying the Philippines would not get support at the UN  because it is supposedly dominated by countries beholden to China.

Other critics of Duterte's soft approach to China say raising the Hague ruling before the UN and getting a UN resolution to support the ruling could be complemented by strategic security moves like freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) with other countries.

Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio said FONOPS with naval powers like the US, the United Kingdom, and Japan "enforce the arbitral award" in the South China Sea.

What will Duterte government do instead? Instead of working with many countries to pressure China, or a taking a multilateral approach, Malacañang prefers to continue its bilateral approach with China on the West Philippine Sea issue.

"The administration has chosen bilateral negotiations, an internationally recognized mode of resolving a conflict. Compared to the previous administration, the present one is faring better," said Panelo.

"Presently, there is no better option to resolve the dispute than addressing the same directly with the other claimant," he added.

However, the Duterte government's bilateral talks have not stopped incursions of Chinese warships into Philippine territorial waters, the swarming of Chinese vessels around Philippine-occupied Pag-asa Island, and harassment of Filipino fishermen and Filipino soldiers.

A June 2019 Social Weather Stations survey found that 87% of Filipinos  want the government to assert the Hague ruling.

The same poll showed 93% of Filipino adults said "it is important that the Philippines regain control of the islands occupied by China in the West Philippine Sea." – Rappler.com

Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at pia.ranada@rappler.com.

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