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  • The Philippines and the Arbitral Tribunal’s AwardA Sombre Victory and Uncertain Times Ahead
  • Lowell Bautista (bio)

The Philippines is in the midst of a transition. The astonishing rise and decisive victory of Rodrigo Duterte in the presidential election in May 2016 marked a significant turning point in Philippine politics. Manila’s longstanding territorial and maritime boundary disputes with Beijing in the South China Sea are among the most immediate and intricate foreign policy challenges facing President Duterte. However, in an unexpected twist, previously acrimonious bilateral relations with China have demonstrated signs of improvement while Duterte’s relentless and fiercely critical rhetoric against the United States has placed the country’s robust and longstanding security and defence relations with America in question. This turn of events heralds uncertain times for both the Philippines and Southeast Asia.

The Philippines at a Crossroads

Philippine foreign policy under President Duterte will be profoundly different from the one pursued by the previous administration [End Page 349] of President Benigno Aquino III. The priorities, philosophy and dynamics that inform the policies of Duterte will be fashioned and influenced by his background as a local politician from the southern Philippines, predicated on his anti-establishment position as a virtual outsider in national politics and a neophyte in foreign affairs. On the sombre stage of global diplomacy where tradition, protocol and etiquette are primordial values, the raw honesty, populist theatrics, impulsiveness and frivolity of Duterte have not been well-received in other countries, though he remains very popular at home.

Duterte’s conciliatory and amicable stance towards China seems a conundrum in stark contrast with his usual intrepid, volatile and pugnacious temperament. The President’s colourful language, which reveals a deep-seated resentment towards the United States, is a thin veneer covering a hollow foreign policy on a dangerously isolationist path. While Duterte has demonstrated his embarrassing histrionics, he has yet to unveil a carefully crafted and detailed policy towards China and how his administration intends to deal with the complex disputes in the South China Sea.

An Overwhelming Victory

On 12 July 2016, the final award of the Arbitral Tribunal in the case filed by the Philippines against China over the South China Sea in January 2013 represented an overwhelming legal and moral victory for Manila. The Tribunal decisively declared that China’s nine-dash line claim had no basis in international law and was incompatible with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). However, China’s defiance of the ruling and refusal to honour it pose a serious challenge to Manila’s victory. There were initially high expectations — riding on a global tide of favourable public opinion after the Hague ruling — that the Philippines would call on other countries to help enforce the verdict, demand reparations over the damage done to the marine environment, negotiate a fisheries access agreement at Scarborough Shoal, conduct navigational operations, and peacefully contest China’s hegemonic ambitions through regional support and diplomatic pressure. These options now endure only in the realm of wistful thinking. The strategic imperatives behind Manila’s muted jubilation in response to the ruling are justifiable, but the shortsighted, amnesic foreign policy reaction to accommodate China is inexplicable. [End Page 350]

The all-encompassing victory was subduely received. After the award was issued, the reaction from Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay was so sullen that casual observers unaware of the positive ruling might have formed the conclusion that the Philippines had actually lost the case. Yasay’s terse official statement merely called for “restraint and sobriety”, echoing President Duterte’s “no-taunt, no-flaunt” policy. Both men advocated for carefully calibrated actions so as to cushion the blow of a positive ruling against China.1 This was in sharp contrast to the Aquino administration’s more bellicose stance towards Beijing.

The tight-lipped, almost cryptic response from Duterte — known for his animated language and unpredictable demeanour — was atypical of him. China’s optimism in the Duterte administration indicates that the conciliatory approach of the new administration has not gone unnoticed in Beijing.2President Duterte has since avoided extended discussion of the legal victory, and has yet to reveal a well thought...


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pp. 349-355
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