As the ‘arbitration’ charade wanes

Herman Tiu Laurel / Phil-BRICS Strategic Studies / July 16, 2020

In September of 2019, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro “Teddyboy” Locsin Jr. tweeted that the Philippines would lose if the 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) award to the Philippines was raised to the United Nations (UN). Locsin twitted that “We will lose in the UN, which is dominated by countries grateful to China for its indisputable generosity in development aid.”

His earlier pronouncements notwithstanding, Locsin said on this year’s 4th anniversary of the so-called arbitral win of the Philippines that the “Arbitral tribunal award of 2016 (is a) non-negotiable, victory for law-abiding nations. This, despite the fact that the Philippines continues to negotiate with China on many issues over and above the so-called arbitral ruling.

 Locsin’s anniversary revival of the “award” was a perfunctory act as secretary of foreign affairs.  But it was expectedly sensationalized by the usual anti-China media raising a degree of unwarranted tension. However, tension subsided as quickly as it rose when spokesman Harry Roque reaffirmed at a Palace press briefing the friendship of the Philippines and China:

 “We will proceed with… our friendship with China like matters on economic and trade relations … We will set aside other things that we do not agree on including the territorial dispute.”

 China’s Foreign Ministry responded as swiftly as Foreign and State Minister Wang Yi requested a virtual meet with Sec. Locsin. The DFA reports:

 “Both sides reaffirmed that contentious maritime issues are not the sum total of the Philippines-China bilateral relationship… With mutual respect, sincerity and adherence to sovereign equality, both sides will continue to manage issues… and promote maritime cooperation in friendly consultation… strengthen Philippines-China comprehensive strategic cooperation.’

 There have been many rewards from the friendly relationship of the Philippines with China, one of the most rewarding is the 60/40 deal on the Reed Bank (Recto Bank in Philippine terms) oil and gas exploration and production project hugely in favor of the Philippines. This is a template for many more negotiated deals to come, including mining of “methane hydrate crystals” in the future.

 Just a week before the arbitration anniversary his Excellency Huang Xilian inspected another of the rewards to the Philippines — the Philippine-Sino Center for Agricultural Technology-Technical Cooperation Program Phase III.  Weeks earlier it was the turn of the two donated bridges in Makati and Binondo and even earlier by virtual, digital visit the Chico River Irrigation project.

It’s not just economics, China picked up the cudgels for the Philippines at the UN Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) to oppose the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights Michelle Bachelet interference with the Philippines’ anti-terror law. China called for respect for the “authoritative information provided by the member states” i.e. the Philippines, instead of questionable NGO reports.

The list of China’s assistance to the Philippines has lengthened considerably through this COVID-19 crisis leading to enhancing further the goodwill between the two countries. Aside from continuing donations of medical masks, PPEs, ventilators, tests kits that would run into millions of items, China has also committed to give the Philippines priority when its “global public good” vaccine (now in clinical trials in various parts of the world and ahead of the rest) is ready for distribution.

Moreover, in the challenge of economic recovery from the devasting COVID-19 pandemic China stands out as the key to future recovery. Philippine recovery too hinges on China’s economic rebound from the pandemic crisis while the U.S. is visibly doomed for the next three years. MarketWatch on July 13, 2020 reported, “China’s stock market just jumped 6%. This is a good thing and Westerners should be glad…. China’s V-shaped economic recovery (will likely) drag the U.S. along.”

The Financial Times had a similar tone: “Chinese shares hit 5-year high (because of) ongoing optimism over economy… Services sector survey fuels hopes rebound is taking hold in world’s biggest emerging market.”  This is in the midst of successful state response and control of the adverse impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the predictable success of the HK National Security Law. No obstacle thrown by the U.S. has stopped the surge – and certainly not the SCS issues.

 The Philippines is right to treat the territorial issues with China as a very minor matter. The intractability of territorial disputes between countries is legendary. Diplomacy has taken many approaches to maintaining normal relations despite such contentious border issues. In discussing such problems am frequently reminded of the Hans Island dispute between Denmark and Canada.

In 1984, the Danish Minister visited to stake the Danish flag on Hans Island with a small note saying “Welcome to the Danish Island” leaving a bottle of the Germanic liquor Schnapps. When it was the Canadians’ turn to stake their flag, they returned the favor with their own welcoming sign and left a bottle of Canadian Club. According to stories, this exchange of bottle spirits of goodwill has become an annual ritual.

Unlike the mature Danes and Canadians, however, there is a motley crew of Filipino arbitration zealots who invariably agitate for tension against China. During this 4th arbitration anniversary ex-Justice Antonio Carpio produced a YouTube video calling for the “defense of sovereign rights” even as the PCA has actually reduced Philippine territorial claims in classifying Philippine-claimed islands as rocks that do not generate territorial entitlement.

Another arbitration zealot, the Philippine Daily Inquirer posted a jingoist headline, “In slap on face of PH, China replies to Locsin on tribunal ruling: It’s invalid.” Unfortunately, the Inquirer only succeeded in slapping itself for appearing demagogic, immature, rabble rousing, and unable to appreciate the dance of diplomacy. Meanwhile, Albert del Rosario is uncharacteristically quiet, probably still smarting from the ICC rebuff of his suit against President Xi Jinping.

Time has exposed the PCA award for what it is — a fraud and fiction backed only by gaslighting, i.e. psychological and perception manipulation, by the U.S. and its minions in the international and local mainstream media.

UN’s International Court of Justice ex-member juror Abdul Koroma had already said in 2016 that the PCA (Permanent Court of Arbitration) is not a U.N. agency but Carpio et al kept insisting China will be forced to comply and made many Filipinos swallow the charade.

That gimmick by the company of Del Rosario and Carpio cost taxpayers legal fees of P 750-million which the Commission on Audit (COA) has been harping on the past Noynoy Aquino administration to account for. So far, no answer seems to be forthcoming. Are we supposed to just charge it to the bad and bitter experience while the American lawyers led by Paul Richler laugh all the way to their banks?

 What is a noticeable change this year in the PCA “award” anniversary is the very brief period that the controversy surged. It was a matter of just 24 hours and the sensationalized stories ended, while the usual suspects Albert Del Rosario et al could not manage to stage any big event, not even a Webinar to raise the issue – while Carpio just produced a YouTube video which didn’t any significant attention anymore.

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