MANILA, Philippines – The Philippines rebuked China on Friday, April 4, for its aggressive behavior in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) as it dismissed that country's barrage of statements against the Philippines on a historic case.
“Countries should be judged by their actions, not by their words,” Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said in a rare statement.
Through these words, the Philippines' Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) broke its 5-day silence on the issue even as China continued to flood media with statements against the Philippines.
The Philippines' statement on Friday carries more weight than others. The DFA, after all, usually criticizes China through its spokesman, not its top diplomat. China hits the Philippines, too, through its foreign ministry spokespersons, not usually its foreign minister, Wang Yi.
Since Sunday, China has explained its legal position on the West Philippine Sea issue in at least 7,200 words, spread through various outlets.
On Thursday, April 3, for instance, China sent the Philippine media a 12-page position paper to detail China's legal claims, and had it published in a paid advertisement on the Philippine Star, a major newspaper.
Deflecting China's propaganda
In contrast, the last time the Philippines spoke was on Sunday, March 30, when it filed a nearly 4,000-page written pleading against China. In around 600 words, the statement on Sunday contained a few details about the Philippines' pleading as well as a litany of reasons why the Philippines filed its case.
The Philippines cannot publicize this pleading, called a memorial, until the arbitral tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration gives its go-signal.
“The Philippines, at this point, will not be able to reply to detailed questions regarding its submission to the Arbitral Tribunal since this matter is sub judice,” Del Rosario said.
The Philippines' top diplomat, however, deflected China's propaganda.
“Nevertheless, the Philippines makes clear that it will continue to exercise self-restraint and will not raise tension in the South China Sea. The Philippines is not the country that has greatly increased its naval and maritime presence in the South China Sea. Nor has it challenged freedom of navigation. Nor has it blockaded nor forcefully intimidated any other country in the South China Sea,” he said.
Trial by publicity
A veteran China analyst, Chito Sta Romana, said China's series of statements is part of its strategy.
He explained why China, which rejects the arbitration process, continues “to argue in their media and in their statements.”
“This effort appears to be aimed at influencing the outcome of the tribunal, as well as preparing the Chinese public and the international community for any eventuality,” Sta Romana said in a forum at the Asian Institute of Management on Wednesday, April 2.
A Filipino journalist who worked for more than 3 decades in China, Sta Romana explained: “What they're trying to do is that on the one hand, they will not participate in the process. On the other hand, from the outside, they present their case, hoping to influence the arbitrators.”
China is ready for “legal warfare,” he said.
“They're trying to meet our legal arguments with legal arguments. In other words, this is not just a question of right and might; they are actually trying to meet the argument head on,” Sta Romana said.
'Defending what is ours'
In a nutshell, China argues that the arbitral tribunal has no right to hear the Philippines' case. Its main arguments can be summarized this way:
Speaking from a Filipino point-of-view, Sta Romana said: “Basically we say it's a maritime dispute. If it's waters, it should be under UNCLOS. The Chinese say, it involves land – islands – and therefore it's a territorial dispute. And if it's territorial, it cannot be under UNCLOS.” (READ: China rejects PH case, invokes int'l law)
Del Rosario said the Philippines, however, reiterates that arbitration “is a peaceful, friendly and a durable settlement mechanism under international law.”
“With the submission of the Philippine memorial and with the support of the Filipino people," he explained, "we are defending what is legitimately and rightfully ours." – Rappler.com
Paterno R. Esmaquel II, news editor of Rappler, specializes in covering religion and foreign affairs. He obtained his MA Journalism degree from Ateneo and later finished MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email him at email@example.com.