South China Sea

[OPINION] The rule of law as the clear path to resolve the South China Sea dispute

Albert Del Rosario
[OPINION] The rule of law as the clear path to resolve the South China Sea dispute

Nico Villarete/Rappler

'Without the Rule of Law as an anchor, one can get lost in the sea of countless interests and pressures from various individuals, groups, and states'

Last week on January 19, 2023, during his trip to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. remarked that the South China Sea dispute “keeps you up at night, keeps you up most of the time…. It’s very dynamic, it’s constantly in flux so you have to pay attention to it.”

However, on January 9, 2023, the Philippine Coast Guard reported that a Chinese Coast Guard vessel drove away a Filipino fishing boat at Ayungin Shoal, despite the “agreement” earlier mentioned by President Marcos Jr. “that China will not stop our fishermen from fishing.”

As chief protector of our national territory, we are thankful that the challenges to our country’s sovereignty and sovereign rights are foremost in the mind of our President. 

We understand that the South China Sea dispute may be a complex and dynamic set of issues, politically, economically, and diplomatically.

However, there is one anchor that will bring much clarity to this dispute, and that is the Rule of Law. Without the Rule of Law as an anchor, one can get lost in the sea of countless interests and pressures from various individuals, groups, and states. One can be accused of treason by making the wrong choice that prejudices national interest.

By faithfully abiding by the Rule of Law, Mr. President, you can only do right because a choice pursuant to the Rule of Law is supported by your people and the international community, and advances our national interest.

In the South China Sea dispute, the Rule of Law is embodied in the 2016 Arbitral Award won by the Philippines under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

In this regard, the President is correct when he also said in Davos that “we have no conflicting claims with China” in terms of our sovereign rights in the West Philippine Sea, given that the UNCLOS Award already settled that the West Philippine Sea exclusively belongs to Filipinos.

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Nonetheless, China is persisting in its illegal claim in our waters, like a thief who was already been ordered by a court to return the stolen property to the owner.

Thus, the action to be undertaken at this point is the enforcement of the UNCLOS Award.

Among the ways to enforce the UNCLOS Award are: consistently raising the Award at the United Nations General Assembly and other international fora; engaging in joint patrols and military exercises in our waters and further consolidating the support of countries which believe in the UNCLOS Award and the Rule of Law; making China accountable for the environmental crimes it committed in the West Philippine Sea; and building a minimum credible defense posture to protect our national territory.

Keeping faith in the Rule of Law allows us to treat each other fairly and in the spirit of sovereign equality. It provides the rules with which nations can relate and work together. It reduces arbitrariness and unilateralism. Fidelity to the Rule of Law allows us not only the means to resolve differences, but also the substance on which to build better understanding to resolve disputes such as those in the South China Sea.

Follow the Rule of Law, Mr. President. You can be sure that the Filipinos will be with you. – Rappler.com

Albert del Rosario is Chair of the Stratbase ADR Institute, former Secretary of Foreign Affairs, and former Philippine Ambassador to the United States.

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  1. CM

    Believing that the Rule of Law is the “anchor” to bring clarity and resolution to the countries’ maritime dispute is misplaced optimism. The Philippines and China exist in two parallel universes and the twain shall never meet. While the former relies on the Rule of Law, the latter insists on the Rule by Law — its own law!

    An ascendant China has the guns, gold, and goons to implement its law. Just look at how blatantly it has taken over and militarized islands, explored for oil and gas, and overfished in the EEZ of its Southeast Asian neighbours, not to mention its rejection of the Arbitral Award to the Philippines.

    No amount of external pressure, even joint US-Philippine maritime patrols, will alter China’s increasingly unfettered behaviour. What the Philippines needs is its own version of realpolitik diplomacy to ensure that it not just survives but thrives in the space where China is the new hegemon.