News analysis

S. China Sea ruling: From roaring victory to a whisper

Hague decision's value lies in its raising of Manila's leverage

On July 12 last year, an arbitral tribunal in The Hague handed the Philippines a sweeping victory in a case it filed challenging China's expansive claims to the South China Sea.

The tribunal struck down China's "historic rights" to two-thirds of these waters. It ruled that China's claims are inconsistent with an international treaty that uses land features, rather than historic rights, in determining sea borders.

Hundreds of anti-China activists held a victory party after the ruling was announced just after noon that day. Drums were banged and there was dancing at a Manila restaurant.

A thousand balloons in the red, blue, white and yellow colours of the Philippine flag were released, as everyone who saw it chanted "Chexit" - a play on the phrase "China exit" - as they pressed calls for China to retire its claims.

But at a news briefing the same day, then Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay was sombre. He called for "restraint and sobriety" even as the ruling was hailed as a "triumph of the rule of law", and hopes were high it would roll back China's dramatic push to assert its claims with a massive island- building programme in the South China Sea's southern half.

That set the tone for how the new government of President Rodrigo Duterte intended to treat the ruling.

In the months that followed, the ruling would gradually be set aside, as Mr Duterte wooed China and moved away from the United States, partly out of spite, but generally out of pragmatism.

Mr Duterte has repeatedly said he would discuss the ruling with President Xi Jinping before the Philippine President's term ends in 2022. But with his foreign policy heavily dependent on maintaining good ties with Beijing, this is increasingly becoming unlikely.

He did attempt once to raise it with Mr Xi, who flatly told him China would go to war if the Philippines insists on enforcing the ruling.

But some analysts say the value of the ruling lies in the plain fact that it exists.

"The Hague ruling has implicitly raised the leverage of the Philippines without the need to publicly invoke it," Associate Professor Eduardo Araral, vice-dean at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, told The Straits Times.

He said the Philippines' position "has lowered the temperature" in the South China Sea and "somehow altered the dynamics in Asean meetings". This has made it likely that a "code of conduct" meant to avoid conflicts in the disputed waters will be in place by November.

Duterte spokesman Ernesto Abella told reporters yesterday it is "excellent" that the Philippines and China "are now in dialogue".

But for former foreign secretary Albert del Rosario, who put together Manila's case against Beijing, a foreign policy that focuses on "pleasing China at the expense of almost everyone else" blunts whatever gains the ruling promises.

"We cannot forget what the Philippines has gained from the arbitral tribunal ruling, and may still hope to gain, through wise and appropriate leadership, from the protection of the rules-based system. We cannot weaken that protection by picking and choosing when to promote the law and when to ignore it," said Mr Del Rosario.

Mr Victor Andres Manhit, president of Stratbase ADR Institute, a local think-tank, said Mr Duterte, despite warming ties with Beijing, "must recalibrate (his) current policy and render it independent in the fullest sense".

The Philippine leader "is weakening the Philippines' position within the US-led alliance system, in a bid to forge stronger ties with the country that poses a threat to our territorial sovereignty and maritime rights", said Mr Manhit.

Prof Araral said he does not see the ruling being invoked as long as Mr Duterte is president.

"In the long run, China- Philippine relations could become similar to Taiwan-China relations that blow hot and cold over time," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 12, 2017, with the headline 'S. China Sea ruling: From roaring victory to a whisper'. Print Edition | Subscribe