[OPINION] Why Duterte should heed Filipinos on China

Remarks delivered during the July 24, 2018 launch of Marites Vitug's Rock Solid: How the Philippines Won its Arbitration Case against China, at the Ateneo de Manila University.

I congratulate Marites Vitug for telling the riveting story behind the high-stakes, tension-filled story: how the Philippines won its arbitration case against China against all odds. This book is well-researched and faithfully narrates how the arbitration came about and how it was pursued. This is a story that the entire Filipino nation, and the entire world, should know.

Like in her previous books, Marites is of course thorough and incisive, weaving a cohesive story from a simmering multilateral dispute involving historical, legal, diplomatic and sovereign issues. The facts and perspectives that Marites elicited in her interviews with the main actors add to our understanding on why events unfolded and happened the way they did. 

This is a story that is instructive to the Filipino people in 3 ways.

First, there is a way to fight a militarily powerful hegemonic state that is encroaching on a smaller and militarily weaker state’s territory and maritime zones. The rule of law is the shield and sword of the smaller and militarily weaker state to repulse a nuclear-armed hegemon.

Second, the defense of our sovereignty and sovereign rights is of paramount national interest transcending personal and political interests. The nation and our leaders must be united in defending our sovereignty and sovereign rights. Our leaders must rise above personal interests, exercise utmost dedication and diligence, and give their very best in defending our sovereignty and sovereign rights.

Third, there is an urgent need to craft a long-term strategy for defending our territory and sovereign rights not only in terms of military matters, but also in terms of historical, legal, political, and diplomatic perspectives and initiatives. Our policy makers, academics and think-tanks must anticipate future situations like China’s seizure of Scarborough Shoal in 2012, and craft strategies how our government could prevent, and how it should respond to, such situations.

China seized Sandy Cay in 2017 in the same way China seized Scarborough Shoal 5 years earlier in 2012. The Duterte administration’s response to the Chinese seizure of Sandy Cay was neither to protest nor to file an arbitration case but to simply hush it up for fear of offending China. The Duterte administration refuses to learn from China’s seizure of Mischief Reef in 1995 and China’s seizure of Scarborough Shoal in 2012.

After the arbitral tribunal issued its Award two years ago on July 12, 2016, a ruling that overwhelmingly favored the Philippines, I expected the Philippine Government to immediately use the ruling to ask the peoples and nations of the world to help the Philippines convince China to comply with the ruling. 

I never thought for a moment that we have to first convince our own Philippine Government that it is to the immense benefit of the Philippines and the Filipino people to use the ruling to protect and preserve Philippine sovereign rights in the West Philippine Sea. 

I never expected that our own Philippine Government would be the first to doubt publicly the usefulness of the ruling. I never expected that our own Defense Secretary would call the ruling an “empty victory”, echoing the propaganda line of China. Worst of all, I never expected that our own President would announce publicly that he was “setting aside” the ruling. 

How is our Department of Foreign Affairs engaging China now? The  President has said that the Philippines should be meek and humble to earn the mercy of China. The President even declared publicly his love for China’s President Xi Jinping, even as Xi Jinping has publicly taken personal credit for China’s island-building and creeping expansion in the West Philippine Sea. This is obviously an appeasement policy, even a defeatist policy, that can only cement China’s hold on the West Philippine Sea, and even lead to a waiver of our sovereign rights in the West Philippine Sea, sovereign rights that we fought so hard to win under the arbitral ruling.

The antidote to this appeasement and defeatist policy is to harness the support of the Filipino people against this appeasement and defeatist policy. The Pulse Asia survey released two weeks ago shows that 73% of the Filipino people want the ruling to be enforced. The SWS survey released 10 days ago shows that 81% of the Filipino people repudiate the Duterte administration’s policy of not enforcing the ruling, and 87% want the Philippine Government to retake the islands seized by China in the West Philippine Sea.

We have to grow the number Filipinos demanding enforcement of the ruling to over 90% so that the Duterte administration can no longer ignore the sentiment of the Filipino people. This is very doable because 87% of Filipinos already want to get back the islands we lost to China in the West Philippine Sea. It is just a matter of explaining to the people that the first step in retaking our islands is to enforce the ruling.

For if the Duterte administration still refuses to heed the sentiment of the Filipino people and continues with its appeasement and defeatist policy, the Filipino people will convert their sentiment into votes in the coming 2019 elections. That is how our democracy works under the Constitution.

This book of Marites comes at a crucial time when there is an urgent need for a renewed effort to inform the Filipino people that the enforcement of the ruling is the only viable way of protecting and preserving our sovereign rights in the West Philippine Sea. 

This book will explain to the Filipino people in layman’s language why the Philippines filed the arbitration case and why we won overwhelmingly the case.  Armed with this knowledge, the Filipino people will then demand that the Philippine Government use the ruling to protect and preserve our sovereign rights in the West Philippine Sea, a maritime zone larger than the total land area of the Philippines.

Once again, congratulations to Marites for writing a story of a landmark and historic arbitration that all Filipinos should be proud of, a story that should be told and retold to this generation and future generations of Filipinos. – Rappler.com