Manila crafting measured response, allowing for possible talks

A Philippine national flag flutters on a part of a fishing boat with anti-China protest signs, as demonstrators march towards the Chinese Consulate, over the South China Sea disputes.
A Philippine national flag flutters on a part of a fishing boat with anti-China protest signs, as demonstrators march towards the Chinese Consulate, over the South China Sea disputes.PHOTO: REUTERS

Manila is crafting a measured response that will leave the door open to talks with Beijing, without setting aside the ruling handed down by an international tribunal that rejected China's expansive claims to the South China Sea.

This is as fishermen from the town of Masinloc readied themselves to sail for Scarborough Shoal to test the ruling. China wrested the shoal from the Philippines in 2012 and since then has prevented Filipinos from fishing there. This led to Manila challenging Beijing's maritime claims in an international court.

Among other things, the tribunal said China had violated the traditional fishing rights of Filipinos by not letting them fish at the shoal.

Government officials have been tight-lipped since Tuesday's ruling on what steps will be taken, beyond calling for "restraint and sobriety".

Communications Minister Martin Andanar said on Tuesday that Solicitor-General Jose Calida was preparing a "synopsis" and "interpretation" of the 479-page ruling by the five-man Arbitral Tribunal in The Hague. President Rodrigo Duterte will then decide in five days what to do, said Mr Andanar.

The tribunal ruled that there was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources within more than two-thirds of the South China Sea, marked by a "nine-dash line" found on a modern Chinese map.

Mr Duterte's spokesman Ernesto Abella appealed for patience at a news briefing yesterday, saying the government will come up with "the right response at the right time".

Defence Minister Delfin Lorenzana, meanwhile, told reporters Mr Duterte has advised against making "hasty decisions". "The President said, let's not rush in deciding what to do, to study this and wait for other developments," he said.

 

Supreme Court Justice Francis Jardeleza, who as solicitor-general filed the case against China, said at a news conference yesterday that he expects Mr Duterte to approach talks with China as if it were a "collective bargaining agreement".

He said: "What is the best way to arrive at a deal? There are many ways to do it: formal negotiating channel, back-channel talks."

Mr Jardeleza said the government could opt, for instance, to ask China to refrain from harassing Filipino fishermen venturing near the Scarborough Shoal atoll.

The mayor of Masinloc, affected by China's blockade of the atoll, said yesterday that plans were being readied for fishermen to again set sail for Scarborough. "We will try to assert our fishing rights, so we can see if China will honour the rule of law," said Ms Arsenia Lim.

She did not say when the fishermen would leave for Scarborough, but they would likely wait for Mr Duterte to decide what to do.

Mr Jardeleza said Manila could also press for a reopening of oil exploration in another contested area in the South China Sea, Reed Bank. The Philippines suspended drilling in these waters, after exploration ships sent there by Filipino-owned Philex Mining were chased away by Chinese coast guard ships.

Analysts from US think-tank Centre for Strategic and International Studies at a Washington forum on Tuesday suggested that Mr Duterte, to assure a population jubilant over the ruling, could decide to draw a line that would signal to China what actions Manila sees as provocative. These may include China's attempts to create an island on Scarborough or reinforce a blockade around Filipino troops manning a beached transport ship on Second Thomas Shoal.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 14, 2016, with the headline 'Manila crafting measured response, allowing for possible talks'. Print Edition | Subscribe