PH-China ties: A time for everything

In the book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament of the Bible, it is written:

“There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens – a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal… ” It goes on to speak of various other times when it is best to do certain things – “a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing… a time to be silent and a time to speak, a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace.”

At the start of President Duterte’s administration, he spoke of what he intended to do about China. The Philippines had just won its case in the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague filed by the previous Aquino administration. The international court rejected China’s nine-dash-line claim to most of the South China Sea as having no basis in international law. It upheld the Philippines’ right to explore for mineral and other resources within its 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Its fishermen have the right to fish in traditional fishing grounds like Scarborough Shoal. The court affirmed freedom of navigation in the sea, which the United States continually claims for its ships and planes.

China has never recognized the Permanent Court’s ruling, as it is contrary to its claim of sovereignty over nearly 80 percent of the South China Sea. The court itself has no authority to enforce its rulings. Neither can the Philippines do it. That legal decision by the court stands but it can be carried out only if the parties concerned agree to do so.

When President Duterte assumed office, he declared a policy of developing close relations with China as well as with Russia. We have won our case in the Arbitral Court, he said, but it is more important now to build on the friendly ties between the two countries. He said he told China President Xi Jinping that the Philippines stands by the ruling. But the Chinese leader was just as firm in rejecting it, Duterte said.

War is out of the question, President Duterte said. There may be a time later when the Philippines will assert its claims as sustained by the Arbitral Court, “but not now.” In recent weeks, Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio, who was part of the Philippine legal team that won the case in the Arbitral Court in 2016, has called on President Duterte to take action on the case. “The President cannot simply do nothing or, worse, acquiesce to China’s action, for inaction is the opposite of protecting the Philippine EEZ,” he said. He called on the government to file a complaint with the UN on China’s reported statement that if the Philippines forces its way into its claimed islands, there would be war.

It is this talk of war that brings to mind those words in Ecclesiastes. We have Justice Carpio calling on the President to assert Philippine claims in the South China Sea more forcefully. On the other hand, we have President Duterte saying, “Not now.” It’s not the right time.

This is a matter that truly deserves the nation’s fullest attention and assessment so that we will know what to say and what to do when the time to decide finally comes.

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