When the Philippines opted to forego the decision of the Permanent Arbitration Court sustaining our claim over some of the islands in the South China Sea in July 2016, it did not specifically include the Panatag or Scarborough Shoal, which our local fishermen called Bajo de Masinloc. What President Duterte did was to implement the Chinese approach of seeking a win-win solution to the problem.
China could not have interpreted the decision to include the Panatag Shoal. This is clear because we cannot give what the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas recognizes as an area where we exercise our sovereign rights. To include the Panatag Shoal could make us appear ridiculous. The area is within the 200-mile limit demarcated by Unclos which we have an exclusive right to explore and exploit the area of its mineral resources, including oil and gas.
To begin with, when the Philippines decided to bring our dispute for arbitration in February 2013, the policy makers of PNoy, despite their being profusely pro-US, did not have in mind the Panatag Shoal, except until after they bungled the problem by sending in our warship and started arresting Chinese fishermen that led to a standoff for eight weeks.
Since China has a tenuous position over the Panatag Shoal, it kept a low key in asserting its claim until after that incident on April 8, 2012. China managed to outflank the Philippines militarily. From the vantage position of effective occupation, it began to assert the nine-dash line
Moreover, even if Panatag is within the so-called nine-dash line, China could not well articulate its claim. It is a signatory to the Unclos. It can either give up its claim or refuse to honor the 200-mile limit demarcated as Exclusive Economic Zone. For China to insist, despite the conciliatory gesture extended by President Duterte, could create anxiety to its motive and even seriously alienate countries in Southeast Asia.
Maybe the decision by the Aquino administration to send BRP Gregorio del Pilar and the attempt to arrest the Chinese fishermen promptly caused China to send in their maritime vessels. But before that incident, both countries allowed their respective fishermen to fish in the area.
For China to build structures in the Panatag Shoal, as some alarmists would claim, could only be interpreted that it is reneging on the understanding reached during the President’s visit. That could politically push the Duterte administration to the precipice of isolation. The opposition will surely exploit that to validate their charge to harass him of impeachment. The vociferous but good-for-nothing opposition will argue that while economic and development assistance are of great value, the psyche of the “loss of sovereignty” would allow them to drumbeat their anti-China propaganda.
The President has crossed more than half of the bridge to renew our friendship with an old friend, and many Filipinos are hopeful that China would reciprocate that. According to President Duterte, “he had the assurance of the Chinese government that they will not build anything on the Panatag because they want our friendship. They [won’t] do anything to place it in jeopardy, he said.” Like it or not, China has to provide him a leeway to allay suspicion that he bargained away our territory just to obtain the oft-repeated win-win formula of seeking a modus vivendi with China.
In fact, the gesture extended by the Philippines is being observed by the rest of the countries in Southeast Asia. To put up structure in the Panatag Shoal as some quarters would claim is to deprive the President of his leverage. This will also put to a crucible test Duterte’s unorthodox diplomacy for which many believe that China is equally committed to maintain.
This new equation is necessary to put in proper balance the reinvigorated relations between the Philippine and China. As President Duterte stated, “I am not so much into war. My country is only a small one. On China, I can tell you: We have not abandoned our claim. When I went to China, my first statement was, “I come here in good faith and I extend my hand in friendship.” That means, China is now under moral obligation to sustain the goodwill and friendship to deny the wavering countries of Southeast Asia the justification to warrant their need for the continued presence of the US navy in the area.
Summarizing the situation, first we have the decision of the PAC in our favor which we cannot enforce and China refuses to recognize. We maintain our physical occupation in some of the islands in the South China Sea, specifically in the Kalayaan group of islands, which we claim as ours and equally insisted by China as historically, a part of their territory. Despite China’s overwhelming might, it has not shown any sign to harass or evict us out of the Kalayaan islands. Rather, China has maintained the policy of status quo ante bellum.
On the other hand, we nearly lost the Panatag Shoal because of the bellicose stance exhibited by the previous administration. But because of the warming relations initiated by President Duterte, China withdrew their maritime vessels in the Panatag and allowed us once again to fish in the area unmolested, impliedly handing it back to us. Our fisher folks will testify that China has not built any structure in the Panatag, contrary to what others are saying.
Finally, China has reciprocated the friendship extended by the President with unprecedented economic assistance package something we can never have if we opted to adventurously go to war against China. We can only choose to either blindly follow the dictates of some who surely have a different agenda in store for us or to just chart our own independent policy based on what is good for our country.
To remove the mistrust and suspicion that is obviously being exploited by opposition and their US handlers, maybe an agreement can be sorted out to convert the Panatag Shoal into a free zone where, as it was before, the Philippines would allow Chinese fishermen to make their catch in the area with the Philippines having jurisdiction, in recognition of the fact that it is within the EEZ, with the right to erect installation for maritime navigation and for marine and ecological safeguarding of the area; and to commit ourselves not to allow the area to be used or converted into a foreign military base.