Activists call on Marcos to pursue Philippine maritime claims against China

Jojo Riñoza and Basilio Sepe
Activists call on Marcos to pursue Philippine maritime claims against China A protester holds a sign in the form of a paper boat cutout while taking part in a demonstration over Philippine territorial rights in the South China Sea, outside the Chinese consulate in Makati, the financial district in Metro Manila, July 12, 2022.
Jojo Riñoza/BenarNews

Filipino nationalists and activists pressed new President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to actively assert their country’s territorial rights, as the Philippines marked the sixth anniversary on Tuesday of an arbitration court’s ruling that invalidated Beijing’s sweeping claims in the South China Sea.

About 50 activists assembled outside China’s consulate in Makati, the financial district of the Philippine capital, where they carried signs demanding that Chinese ships and boats stay out of the West Philippine Sea, Manila’s name for its South China Sea territories.

“The issue of the territorial dispute is not just an abstract question of sovereignty, of access to resources,” Benjamin Miguel Alvero, a spokesman for the West Philippine Sea Coalition, the group that led the protest, told BenarNews.

Last month, officials reported that 100 Chinese ships were seen swarming in the Julian Filipe Reef alone – one of the areas inside the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) – but they did not update those figures on Tuesday.

“The militarization of the West Philippine Sea has concrete repercussions for thousands of ordinary Filipinos, of fisherfolk communities that are unable to work and pursue their livelihood because of the threat of harassment, especially from Chinese military forces,” Alvero said.

The Philippines, he said, must confront what he called the “expansionist ambitions of a rising China.”

“We challenge the newly elected administration of Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to prove its commitment to serving the Filipino people (by) pursuing a principled foreign policy, unlike the last six years under the Duterte government,” he said.

Enrique A. Manalo, the new Philippine secretary of foreign affairs, marked the occasion with a statement that did not hold back on the Marcos administration’s stance on the landmark 2016 verdict by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.

“The findings are no longer within the reach of denial and rebuttal, and are conclusive as they are indisputable,” he said. “The award is final. We firmly reject attempts to undermine it; nay, even erase it from law, history and our collective memories.”

The court’s award on July 12, 2016, along with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), are the “twin anchors” of Philippine policy and action in the sea, Manalo said.

The court “authoritatively ruled that the claim of historic rights to resources within the sea areas falling within the ‘nine-dash line’ had no basis in law and is without legal effect,” the foreign secretary added, referring to China’s insistence that it historically owned much of the disputed sea.

Rodrigo Duterte, Marcos’ immediate predecessor who took office in mid-2016, was long criticized for being perceived as soft on China’s military expansionism in the waterway.

Shortly after Duterte came to power, the arbitration court ruled in favor of Manila over Beijing after Chinese ships had refused since 2012 to leave Scarborough Shoal, a South China Sea territory within the Philippines’ 200-mile EEZ. Ever since the court’s decision, Beijing has refused to leave the area and has carried on with its expansionist maritime activities.

During most of his time in office, Duterte engaged Chinese President Xi Jinping in friendlier ties while pulling the Philippines away from China’s traditional rival, the United States. Washington, in the meantime, refused to buckle under pressure and frequently sailed its naval ships into the contested waters under the doctrine of freedom of navigation.

However, late into his term, Duterte declared in a speech to the U.N. General Assembly that the arbitration ruling was “beyond compromise” and that “we firmly reject attempts to undermine it.”

President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. (left) and his predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, cross paths at the Malacañang Palace grounds during the official handover ceremony, June 30, 2022. [BenarNews/FOCAP pool]

The protest in Makati was not as large as in previous years and came a week after Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Marcos in Manila, during which he emphasized that the bilateral relationship had progressed during the Duterte years.

Also on Tuesday, Pamalakaya, a fishermen’s group, staged a colorful parade involving about 30 fishing boats on Laguna de Bay, near Manila. Participants called for Marcos to be forceful in pressing China to honor the ruling.

“Six years after our landmark victory, China won’t stop violating our fishing and sovereign rights in our traditional fishing grounds. Not less than 600,000 fisherfolks and fish workers are directly affected by Chinese aggression in the West Philippine Sea,” said Ronnel Arambulo, the group’s spokesman.

Arambulo said Marcos should “strongly assert sovereign rights to China using the arbitral award and break free from mendicant foreign policies that give leeway to China to carry out more aggressive actions in our waters.

On the eve of Wang’s arrival last week, Marcos, during his first press conference as president, said that his administration was looking to deepen its relations with the regional superpower.

“The agenda I’m sure will be to strengthen ties between China and the Philippines and of course to find ways to work, to resolve the conflicts that we have,” Marcos told reporters at the Malacañang Palace on July 5.

A Philippine protester wears a headband in Tagalog that translates to “will not be oppressed” while joining others during a rally in front of the Chinese consulate in Manila’s financial district, July 12, 2022. [Jojo Riñoza/BenarNews]

Washington’s support

Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated his government’s backing of the Philippines by stating that Washington was committed to “preserving a system where goods, ideas and people flow freely across land, sky, cyberspace and the open seas.

“Preserving a free and open South China Sea governed by international law, as reflected in the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention, is part of this shared vision,” Blinken said in a statement marking the anniversary of the court ruling.

He noted that the ruling firmly rejected China’s expansive South China Sea maritime claims.

Blinken said the State Department this year had released what it calls the “Limits in the Seas No. 150” - a study examining coastal state maritime claims and their consistency with international law. In particular, it examined Beijing’s claims following the tribunal’s ruling.

“This study concluded that these rearticulated maritime claims remain plainly inconsistent with international law,” Blinken said, adding that any attacks of Philippine armed forces, ships or aircraft would automatically invoke defense commitments. The U.S. and the Philippines have a 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty.

“We call again on the PRC to abide by its obligations under international law and cease its provocative behavior,” Blinken said using an acronym for People’s Republic of China. “We will continue to work with allies and partners, as well as regional institutions like ASEAN, to protect and preserve the rules-based order.”

Apart from the Philippines, other Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members who have claims running against China in the potentially rich sea region are Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam. Taiwan, which Beijing considers a renegade province, has its own claims.

Beijing also claims historic rights to parts of the sea overlapping ASEAN member Indonesia’s EEZ.


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