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After Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana declared the Philippines will no longer be participating in joint maritime exercises in the South China Sea with other countries, Filipinos as well as other nations were disgusted while China lauded our country for rebuffing “attempts” of some countries to “incite tensions” in the West Philippine Sea.

“President Rodrigo Duterte has a standing order to us, to me, that we should not involve ourselves in naval exercises in the South China Sea except our national waters, the 12 mile distance from our shores,” Lorenzana said at an online press briefing.

Last month, the United States declared that it would reject China’s pursuit of resources in the South China Sea as illegal. Beijing rejected this, claiming the accusation was “unjustified.” The US, along with allies such as Australia, has been recently conducting joint maritime exercises in the South China Sea following its latest policy on maritime disputes.

This latest China-friendly act of Duterte is in line with his penultimate State of the Nation Address where he admitted being “inutil” on the West Philippine Sea issue as China has “possession” of the area. The West Philippine Sea is the portion of the South China Sea that is within the Philippine exclusive economic zone. Our President continues to insist that asserting our country’s sovereign rights entail going to war with China.

“They (China) are in possession of the property, so what can we do? We have to go to war and I cannot afford it. Maybe some president can but we cannot. Inutil ako dyan,” Duterte said.

War is not necessarily the only option, but because the Philippines has refused to invoke the Philippines’ July 2016 arbitral win that invalidated China’s historic nine-dash claim over the South China Sea under Duterte’s rule, our options have become severely limited.

Retired Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio who was part of the Philippine delegation in the South China Sea arbitration said the President should not say that China is in possession of the Philippines’ EEZ in the West Philippine Sea because that is not the case. He stressed that naval powers like the US, the UK, France, Australia, Japan and Canada regularly sail that sea, proving that Beijing is not in possession. He also pointed out that Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia are asserting their sovereign rights to their maritime zones disputed by China without going to war.

It would be a shame if the Philippines lost its sovereign rights to vast swathes of resource-rich and strategic maritime zones to the neighborhood bully and squatter. If only we had leaders who were willing to explore the numerous options and alliances that could prevent the country from being on the losing end of a battle that could’ve winnable given the right strategy.*


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October 2020