Commentary 2016/30, 13 July 2016
Yesterday’s unanimous ruling by the Arbitration Tribunal comprehensively upholds the case filed by the Aquino administration in 2013. It also limits the ability of the Duterte administration to differentiate itself from its predecessor on how the Philippines manages relations with China.
The ruling likely precludes any further talk of China-Philippine joint development in the South China Sea. It states that current Chinese limits on Philippine fishing within the exclusive economic zone claimed by the Philippines in the South China Sea are unlawful. If China persists with these activities, the Duterte administration will be under intense domestic and international pressure to call China out on these illegal activities. Finally, the comprehensive nature of the ruling in favour of the Philippine case likely precludes the Duterte administration from accepting China’s dubious offer to restart bilateral negotiations on the dispute by ignoring yesterday’s ruling China deems ‘null and void.’ The Duterte administration now can only restart these negotiations on the basis of the Tribunal ruling.
Many expected the new Duterte administration to take a fundamentally different position on how to balance relations with the U.S. and China from the Aquino administration. Duterte’s strong links with the Philippine militant left and his clear desire to attract Chinese concessional infrastructure financing led many to assume that a Duterte administration would seek a more equidistant position between the two major powers in the region than the Aquino administration’s position that was criticized unfairly as siding with the U.S. against China.
The two landmark achievements of Philippine foreign policy under the Aquino administration limit the Duterte’s administration room of manoeuvre in both directions. The U.S.-Philippine Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement has given the U.S. access to at least five Philippine bases and has institutionalized a stronger alliance relationship that serves U.S. interests in the region. Yesterday’s ruling on the case filed by the Aquino administration establishes the tight parameters for the Duterte administration’s approach to the disputes with China in the South China Sea. The Aquino legacy over major power relations under the Duterte administration was already significant. Yesterday’s ruling now makes the legacy a profound one, and one that may well frustrate plans for significant change to Philippine foreign policy.
Dr Malcolm Cook is Senior Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.
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