South China Sea ruling

After #Chexit: Do nothing?

The Philippine Left has a gift for mischievous phrase making, and last week's coinage was both obvious and effective.

#Chexit, with the now-obligatory hashtag, quickly made the rounds. Inspired by the tumultuous campaign to consider Britain's exit from the European Union, the new catchphrase was code for the legal campaign to force China to "exit" the South China Sea.

On Tuesday, an arbitral tribunal - provided for under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, convened by the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea and hosted by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague - obliged. The five judges hearing the case the Philippines filed against China ruled sweepingly in the Philippines' favour.

What now?

A solemn-faced Perfecto Yasay Jr., the new Philippine foreign secretary, responded to the ruling, or "award", with a call for "all those concerned to exercise restraint and sobriety".

Unpopular as it was in a country suddenly swept up in a David-versus-Goliath victory, the appeal was probably the most reasonable course of action to take. All those concerned should, at least for the next several weeks, do nothing.

After an arbitral tribunal ruled sweepingly in the Philippines' favour in a case that the country had filed against China over their South China Sea disputes, cooler heads have called for "doing nothing" to allow the implications of the landmark ruling to sink in for all concerned.  PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

The appeal applies as much to Filipinos raring to return to Scarborough Shoal (or Bajo de Masinloc as it was known during the Spanish colonial regime) to fish, as to Chinese netizens raring to sound the war drums or, as a continuation of martial fervour by other means, at least to boycott Philippine mangoes. It also applies to American sailors, Japanese pilots, Indonesian coast guard personnel, Vietnamese fishermen.

Let all those concerned allow the implications of a landmark ruling to sink in. This will necessarily take time.

Consider: In what was likely a first instance, China was hauled before the patchwork system of international courts, and lost badly.

Unpopular as it was in a country suddenly swept up in a David-versus-Goliath victory, the appeal for restraint was probably the most reasonable course of action to take. All those concerned should, at least for the next several weeks, do nothing.

It has of course refused to recognise the tribunal, which it calls "law-abusing", or the award, which it calls "ill-founded".

Chinese President Xi Jinping's first response to the ruling was to reiterate Chinese sovereignty over most of the South China Sea. And various government and quasi-government institutions have since July 12 described the award as absurd or illegitimate or non-binding.

And yet the ruling has the potential to change, if not the conversation itself, then at least the terms of the conversation.

That is, Manila and Beijing will continue to make conflicting claims, but on the question of rock or island, on the problem of fishing rights, on the fundamental issue of China's so-called nine-dash line, the definitions have shifted; the terms, now, are the tribunal's.

One thing Filipinos will watch out for is the rhetoric that will come out of Beijing.

It is good that calls for war are being censored. It is not unexpected that Chinese officials will repeat the standard line about "ancient rights" and "indisputable sovereignty".

It is only logical to expect the new Chinese facilities, built on reclaimed land in the Spratlys, to remain in place, and for Beijing to defend their presence and purpose as civilian in nature.

It is entirely likely that China will once again raise the possibility of imposing an Air Defence Identifi- cation Zone, or take the United States to task for conducting naval patrols in or near disputed areas.

But as long as the language we've heard before is the same language we will hear in the next several weeks, the Philippines will see this as encouraging. It is the nearest equivalent to China doing nothing.

Perhaps Beijing's hosting of the Group of 20 Summit in September will be the appropriate time for China to announce a definite response to the post-July 12 situation.

As for the Philippines, elation should turn to purposeful patience. The new Duterte administration may not have wanted or anticipated such an overwhelming diplomatic victory, but it is not unimportant that the extraordinary case against Beijing is supported overwhelmingly by the Philippine public.

Last March, a Social Weather Stations survey found that 78 per cent of voting-age Filipinos agreed with the legal strategy. Only 8 per cent disagreed. The proportion of Filipinos who were aware of the maritime dispute between the Philippines and China was about the same: 80 per cent, up from 73 per cent in 2013, the year the case was filed.

In a country which counts millions of Chinese-Filipinos among its citizens, whose culture carries the deep imprint of Chinese tradition and sensibility, and where the Chinese economic miracle remains an object of admiration, the depth of public support for the government's case is a measure of Chinese bullying.

The relationship between strong public support for the government case and the unwelcome assertiveness and unreasonable expansiveness of the Chinese claims to almost all of the South China Sea is directly proportional.

Now that the arbitral tribunal has confirmed that bullying has indeed taken place, the new administration seems determined not to provoke the bully.

That seems like a necessary thing; it is the Philippine equivalent of doing nothing. But it is not enough.

  • The writer represents the Philippine Daily Inquirer in the Asia News Network (ANN). This is the third article in a series of columns on global affairs written by top editors from members of the ANN and published in newspapers across the region.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 16, 2016, with the headline 'After #Chexit: Do nothing?'. Print Edition | Subscribe