The Philippine president made a strident statement Tuesday on the South China Sea to the United Nations General Assembly, describing a 2016 arbitral tribunal award that struck down virtually all of China’s claims in the disputed waters as “beyond compromise.”
Like other world leaders addressing the pandemic-restricted event, President Rodrigo Duterte delivered the remarks, his first at the world body’s annual meeting of member-state leaders, in a pre-recorded video speech. His address came after years of his rebuffing the meeting and criticizing the U.N. over concerns it has raised about his administration’s controversial war on illegal drugs.
Duterte's remarks aired shortly after Chinese President Xi Jinping delivered his address at the opening of the 75th session of the General Assembly.
“The award is now part of international law, beyond compromise and beyond the reach of passing governments to dilute, diminish, or abandon,” Duterte said, in reference to the outcome of the case the previous Philippine administration brought to The Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration.
“We firmly reject attempts to undermine it,” he added.
The 2016 award refuted the legal basis for nearly all of China’s expansive maritime and territorial claims in the South China Sea. It called Beijing’s insistence on holding “historic rights” to the waters there inconsistent with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS.
China has never recognized the 2016 arbitration or its outcome.
Other countries – the United States, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, and most recently the United Kingdom, Germany, and France – have brought up the 2016 arbitration award in their own complaints about China’s behavior in the South China Sea, or have called China to come into compliance with the award as it now constitutes a precedent under international law.
“We welcome the increasing number of states that have come in support of the award and what it stands for – the triumph of reason over rashness, of law over disorder, of amity over ambition,” Duterte went on to say. “This, as it should, is the majesty of the law.”
Duterte’s comments suggested a hardening in tone from the Philippines, which put its territorial disputes with China on the backburner after he took office four years ago. Duterte has sought closer economic ties with China and has toyed with a reduction in ties with its long-standing treaty ally, the United States.
On other topics, Duterte spoke about the climate crisis, the effects of the pandemic on migrants and stranded seafarers, and the need for a COVID-19 vaccine to be available as a global public good.
Duterte, who has faced international criticism over allegations of widespread extrajudicial killings in a bloody war on drugs, also delivered a lengthy diatribe against human rights advocates. He accused them of having “weaponized” human rights and of “preying on the most vulnerable humans.”
The opening day of the General Assembly was dominated by the tensions between the U.S. and China, with President Donald Trump blaming China for the spread of COVID-19. He demanded that China be held accountable.
Xi pushed back, saying China had no intention of entering a “Cold War.”
”We will never seek hegemony, expansion, or sphere of influence,” Xi said. “We have no intention to fight either a Cold War or a hot war with any country. We will continue to narrow differences and resolve disputes with others through dialogue and negotiation. We do not seek to develop only ourselves or engage in a zero-sum game.”
Xi made no mention of the South China Sea.
China currently considers itself to have a maritime dispute with six other Asian governments concerning the South China Sea. They are the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan, and Indonesia.
The United States recently updated its official stance on the dispute, calling China’s maritime claims and claims to some submerged features in the South China Sea “unlawful” and “illegal,” slowly aligning the U.S. stance with the 2016 arbitration award. It has also recently changed its policies on Marine Scientific Research to reflect UNCLOS, despite the U.S. Senate never having ratified the Convention.