Duterte Sets Records Straight, Asserts Rights over West Philippine Sea

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In an unprecedented move, Pres. Rodrigo Duterte on September 23 acknowledged the Philippines’ legal rights over the South China Sea in a speech delivered to the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). This speech also marks the Philippine president’s first appearance in the international body.

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Attended by the world’s top leaders and diplomats including Chinese President Xi Jinping, the 75th UNGA served as Duterte’s platform to assert the country’s victory against China, saying that the 2016 ruling over the contested waters is “now part of international law, beyond compromise and beyond [the] reach of passing governments to dilute, diminish, or abandon.”

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Duterte’s strongly worded stance comes four years after the award given by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in favor of the Philippines as based on the United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the international treaty established to define coastal and maritime boundaries. In 2016, the international tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands effectively rejected China’s expansive claim on the South China Sea, parts of which covers the West Philippine Sea.

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Though four years late, Duterte’s unequivocal assertion is a huge milestone especially if compared to his previous weak-kneed stance regarding the matter. As can be recalled in his 2020 State of the Nation Address, Duterte refused to assert rights over the waters for fear of China waging war. “China is claiming it; we are claiming it. China has arms; we do not have it. So it’s as simple as that.”

For former Chief Diplomat and Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario, Duterte is now expected to pursue this position and “put in reality the invocation of the Arbitral Award: Our Government should work earnestly to get the support of more countries so that the Arbitral Award will be raised more emphatically next year, for the UNGA 2021.” Del Rosario is one of the key figures in the arbitration case on the South China Sea in the Aquino administration.

Former Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio also echoed del Rosario’s comment. He hopes that the administration will fulfill its mandate and implement a policy across all levels to protect the WPS and gather further backing from the international community.

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This assertion similarly comes at a monumental point in the international community, as China and the US continue to vie with one another in economic policies and diplomatic stances — creating mounting friction that is feared to lead to “another Cold War.”

UN Secretary-General António Guterres has said that the rivalry between the two super-economies is a great global risk, and the United Nations must “do everything possible to avert the great fracture” created by the polar superpowers.

Both the US and the Beijing regime are establishing strong relationships with the Philippines and other Southeast Asian countries even as they clash over the South China Sea.

Though some may consider Duterte’s stand as in favor of the United States and its other Western allies, the Philippine president has said that the country remains committed to a peaceful resolution of disputes. “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. This — as it should — is the majesty of the law.”

Duterte further assured the international body that the country rejects any attempts to undermine the arbitral ruling and that the country will adhere to the UN Charter and the 1982 Manila Declaration on the Peaceful Settlement of International Disputes.

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