Duterte going easy on China over sea disputes is a “win-win” approach – diplomatic experts

Diplomatic experts called President  Rodrigo Duterte's handling of the Hague Ruling victory of the Philippines as wise, nationalist and pragmatic

A year after the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at the Hague’s ruling, which granted the Philippines exclusive sovereign rights over the West Philippine Sea (in the South China Sea), two geopolitics and diplomacy analysts weigh in on President Rodrigo Duterte’s decision to not insist for China to recognize the United Nation’s tribunal ruling– calling it a smart move.  Former Intelligence Service of the Armed Forces of the Philippines Chief General Victor Corpus and former Department of Education Undersecretary Butch Valdez both agreed that President Duterte’s decision, though may not be understood by the public, has prevented the Asian superpower to go to war against the Philippines over the disputed territory.

“The legal victory of the Philippines on the South China Sea is a double-edged sword that must be handled with extreme care,” said Gen. Victor Corpus. Upon assuming post last June 2016, President Duterte was immediately confronted by a crucial decision point on the territorial issue, whether to take a win-lose approach (Philippines to pressure China to succumb to the ruling) or win-win approach (Both Philippines and China set aside their differences and allow each other to pursue individual interests). But despite this dilemma, Gen. Corpus said President Duterte has made a commendable approach that accentuates the importance of taking a softer stance on our sovereign rights as the key to gaining greater economic outcomes.

Gen. Corpus also stressed that China was serious when Chinese leaders told President Duterte that they are prepared to go to war over competing claims in the South China Sea. Corpus added that it is important to understand where China is coming from and why would it go to war just to protect its sovereignty over the disputed territory. First is to prevent the U.S military’s strategy naval blocking of the Malacca strait aiming to disrupt the activities of the Chinese economy, and second is to utilize the territory to prevent U.S submarine strikes in east coast China (it is where majority of the Chinese population is concentrated). With such reasons, Corpus noted that China is insisting its claim over the South China Sea not because of the resources, but “for survival.”

On the other hand, former Usec. Valdez for his part, said that by setting aside the ruling, President Duterte pursued a better direction that would lead to “peace and development,” giving the Philippines an opportunity to leverage on China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative, the biggest global infrastructure project to be envisioned. With the improvement of ties between the Philippines and China, the former can negotiate with the Asian superpower to revive that old galleon trade route in line with its promising infrastructure-driven Belt and Road project. If this proposal pushes through, the Philippines can be a trading hub in Southeast Asia, facilitating the economic activities of six continents in the globe.

Usec. Valdez added that President Duterte’s decision to engage China in issues outside the Hague Ruling, particularly in economic activities is the way to go, given that the PCA ruling is not as promising as the benefits that the Philippines can get from a better relationship with China. “The PCA ruling has no enforceability, unless you want to go war… which in our case is not an option. We cannot even go to the US and ask them to enforce the ruling for us,” Valdez said. Corpus added that president Duterte knows there is no way that China will acknowledge the ruling primarily because of its distrust to the tribunal, believing that the ruling was influenced by the intelligence agencies of other global superpowers, particularly the United States.

However, Gen. Corpus said the PCA ruling is still significant because it is the Philippines’ legal claim to sovereignty versus China’s historical claim, which is also recognized by International Law. Corpus said that President Duterte has intelligently used the ruling as a bargaining component to China, making it easier for Filipino fishermen to extract resources from the area without the threat of danger from the Chinese navy. Both diplomatic experts also noted that setting aside the ruling is part of President Duterte’s independent foreign policy, which is ultimately pro-Philippines, not anti- or pro- any particular superpower.


Photo Credit: geopolitika.hu

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