Message at the Stratbase ADR Institute Forum on the West Philippine Sea
Promoting a Rules-Based International System
Turf Room, Manila Polo Club
Thank you very much. Thank you. Kindly take your seats.
Acting Chief Justice Antonio Carpio; Excellencies of the Diplomatic Corps; former DFA Secretary and former Philippine Ambassador to the US and Chairman of the ADR Institute, Albert del Rosario; Prof. Dindo Manhit, President of Stratbase ADR Institute; the distinguished speakers for today; Usec. Manny Bautista, Executive Director on Security, Justice and Peace Cluster; honored guests; ladies and gentlemen: Magandang umaga po sa inyong lahat!
Today marks a momentous day in the history of our nation and the world, a date that brings us all together in the face of renewed threats to rule of law and our country’s sovereignty.
On this day, two years ago, the Philippines won for itself a landmark international ruling that not just answered our pleas for protection from another country’s aggression, but also illustrated how we can peacefully prevent another global conflict. China’s encroachment on Philippine territories is the most serious external threat to our country since World War II, but the case proved that in keeping peace, the rule of law is a much more potent force than the rule of arms and battleships.
The Philippines’ impressive victory in The Hague on July 12, 2016 was the result of extensive and massive research, evident in the memorial or plea that reached more than 3,000 pages and 10 volumes of annexes, containing nautical charts, witnesses’ affidavits, and almost two decades of written communications between China and the Philippines. This body of work was critical to our victory. After all, as journalist and author—and one of the speakers for today—Marites Vitug points out, the case was the first to interpret the UNCLOS’ definition of rocks, islands, and low-tide elevations; the first case to be filed by a South China Sea claimant against China; and the first to address the scope and application of the UNCLOS provision on environmental issue. The justness of our claim won us that victory.
Some of those who were instrumental in obtaining this award are here with us today. In behalf of the entire nation, let me say this: We, the Filipino people, are grateful for the bold fight you labored in behalf of all of us. For the struggles that our fishermen are going through, and are still experiencing in the West Philippine Sea, are not just about their livelihood and fish catch. They are also about the future and well-being of each man, woman and child that live in this part of the world.
Take for example Renato Etac, a 40-year-old Filipino fisherman, who single-handedly stared down Chinese Coast Guard rifles in Panatag Shoal in 2016. His boat was tiny compared to the huge Chinese vessels he constantly engaged, in what—in his own words—he referred to as “territorial debates.” As the Chinese asked him to leave, he demanded that they produce official documents that prove that the atoll officially belonged to them.
In an interview with the Associated Press in April 2016, Renato said he simply wanted “to defend his livelihood in waters that used to be open to all.” He is known in his hometown as a guardian of sorts of the triangle-shaped chain of reefs and rocks, where he has fished for Spanish mackerel, trevally, and grouper since he was a teenager. 
Unfortunately, despite the Arbitral ruling, it looks like not much has changed. Last month, a video aired by one of the Philippine’s biggest television networks went viral. It showed Chinese nationals boarding a fishing boat belonging to some Filipino fishermen and taking the best of their catch—without a word.
Delfin, one of the fishermen, was in tears when he told of how he had to hand over his equipment: a simple spear that the fishermen from Masinloc use to catch fish, one by one, under the ocean, so as not to destroy the precious corals and spawning grounds. They threatened him with bodily harm and he was chased away by the Chinese vessel, he said. Seeing the pain that our fisherfolk go through as they work hard, for something that they might not even be able to bring home at the end of a hard day’s work, breaks our hearts. Nobody deserves that, least of all our fishermen. Our country doesn’t deserve that. No country does.
Former Philippine President Ramon Magsaysay once said, “That he who has less in life should have more in law.” Such is true among individuals who are marginalized and disenfranchised. Asserting what is lawfully and rightfully ours for people like Renato and Delfin. But such is also true at the nation-state level. There are countries in the world that dwarf other countries—in geographical size, in military might, in economic power. Rule of law ensures that even on the global stage, there is equality and inclusivity, so that every member of the human family has a voice.
Such rules and norms based on the consent of all, rather than dictated by the power of any country, are the very foundation of global peace. In this day and age of powerful computers, artificial intelligence, and sophisticated weaponry, such rules-based system may be the only thing that can stand between global peace and worldwide conflict, from which our planet may never recover.
This is why our nations must come together to establish such a system, with an urgency befitting an issue as critical as the West Philippine Sea. This is what we must strive for; this is why we will persist.
And this is the reason why we are all here today: to plant the seeds for multilateral and bilateral cooperation, that we may avert conflict on a global scale. With stakes this high, this is not the time to look for someone or something to blame; this is the time to find solutions for the benefit of us all.
The Philippine Constitution backs this policy: Article II, Section 7 reads: “The State shall pursue an independent foreign policy. In its relations with other states, the paramount consideration shall be national sovereignty, territorial integrity, national interest, and the right to self-determination.”
Interestingly, by protecting our people’s right to self-determination, other countries and their people are given a similar platform to demand theirs. What we are fighting for will also benefit everyone—our ASEAN neighbors, as well as other external powers like the United States, India, Australia, and East Asia, like Japan and South Korea. Heightened tensions in disputed areas will only lead to instability, which benefits no one, whether or not they are involved in the disputes. It is imperative that we engage with each other in the spirit of fostering trust, in the face of various claims in the region.
According to the October 2015 issue of The Economist, “Almost 30% of maritime trade goes across the South China Sea, $1.2 trillion of which is bound for [America]. That sea accounts for over 10% of world fisheries production and is thought to have oil and natural-gas deposits beneath its floor.” And these massive resources lie very near our shores.
Unfortunately, prior to the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling in favor of the Philippines, all we could do was watch China turn reefs into islands, and islands into military outposts. At that time, there was no basis for us to assert our right to fish in Panatag Shoal, internationally known as Scarborough Shoal. That meant that every move by our courageous Navy at that time courted war and conflict.
But that is not who we are as a nation; we are peace-makers, not instigators of conflict. After all, haven’t the Filipino people, time and again, demonstrated the use of diplomacy in many global fora—in the United Nations, the International Declaration of Human Rights, in the ASEAN, and so on? We will always stand for peace and harmony, and exhaust all possible diplomatic means necessary to avert war.
The decision to sue China in the Permanent Court of Arbitration was exactly that: an act of determination and pure bravery by a small country against a rising superpower to prevent conflict. Our hard-won victory was a victory of the rule of law and the UNCLOS framework, and provides the foundation for all future engagements in the West Philippine Sea. It also sets the stage for peacefully reclaiming a massive resource, much bigger than our archipelago’s total land area.
Sadly, since then, we have lost that advantage.
The far-reaching effects of the loss of that advantage was precisely what was in my mind, as I marked my second year in office two weeks ago. The images of those poor fishermen fighting for their livelihood and their lives remained with me, as we spent that day visiting Zamboanga del Sur and Basilan, two provinces in the southernmost tip of our archipelagic nation. Was it a coincidence that these two areas in the past also suffered from too much conflict? Perhaps. What was clear in my mind is that we must find solutions and we must find them fast.
As we spoke with impoverished and conflict-affected indigenous Yakan weavers in these two provinces, as we dialogued with the workers of a canning factory in Zamboanga City, and created a training for out-of-school youth in Sumisip, Basilan, we saw that the leaders in all those areas are already executing some of the best practices we have seen in improving the conditions of our people.
Despite all their efforts, however, the fact remains that the challenges we face as a nation are heavy: spiralling prices of food and other basic commodities, higher prices of oil and petroleum, unemployment that has just gone up by a few percentage points, among others. But of all the issues our country faces today, it is the threat to our sovereignty in the West Philippine Sea, and our people’s security, that is most grave and alarming. They make our current challenges much harder to bear.
So last week, our team went to Zambales, a province north of Manila, to find a way to assess the needs of our fishermen affected by the conflict in Panatag Shoal. They told us they need help with their livelihood, in the face of their difficulties in accessing their traditional fishing grounds. They need assistance with the rising cost of living. And what is most touching is that they were asking for assurance: that what is ours will remain ours. We wanted them to know that we are aware of their struggles and that we feel their pain. We also want the Filipino people to know that this is not an entirely hopeless situation, because there are remedies that will not require that we go to war. And we want the world to know that, together, our nations can shine a path towards global peace, as advocates of the rule of law.
This is the time for us to peacefully protest any effort to limit or control movement in these waters. As neighbors and friends, we must stand in opposition to military build-ups in the West Philippine Sea.
US President Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had already issued a joint statement saying that diplomatic efforts should lead to demilitarization of the area. This was followed by a statement by the G7 Foreign Ministers on April 23, showing us that there is widespread global support by the coalition of nations. Such a unified position would do much to preserve peace over Southeast Asia and the world—hopefully reminding China that, like us, it should stand true to its word and work towards the preservation of peace and stability that enables all our citizens to live more peaceful, more dignified, more productive lives.
Today, more than at any other time, our people must all be keenly aware of how foreign policy affects our daily lives. By size, by head count, by influence, or by military strength, some nations may seem small and insignificant. But our respective countrymen are not. Each life, each future, each individual’s potential deserves to benefit from all available diplomatic and peaceful solutions.
Our vision is this: that we stop taking for granted the fact that a coalition with our neighboring countries can emerge as a real power. We must explore the possibilities for ASEAN and other means of regional cooperation in ways we have never done before. We have already started creating this space of cooperation between us. Let us use it well.
Unlike land, the seas are a melting pot of moving parts, and thus it is where rules-based international systems are even more critical for global security. The difference between the 20th and the 21st century is that then, battles were fought on dry ground. Now, the so-called demographic axis of the Earth has shifted to Asia, where, they say, the battles will be fought on sea.
But that does not have to be our future. We can still prove that adherence to the rule of law is still more powerful than any uncertainty that can pull us apart.
This is the day to celebrate that decision, and this is the day to start planning how we should move forward.
Thank you very much. We are looking forward to future collaborations with all of you.