Ex-SolGen: PH's case vs. China may have done more harm than good

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The United Nations Arbitral Tribunal ruled in favor of the Philippines in July 2016 regarding the territorial dispute in South China Sea.

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines) — As Filipinos celebrate the Arbitral Tribunal's ruling favoring the Philippines in its maritime case against China, former Solicitor General Estelito Mendoza said Wednesday the victory may have done more harm than good.

Read: PH wins maritime arbitration case vs. China

Mendoza, who served as the government’s chief lawyer from 1972 to 1986, said the legal triumph may have lifted the country’s stature in the eyes of the world, but the victory may just be on paper that comes with a heavy price.

Compared to the attorney’s fees the government will pay foreign lawyers who argued the Philippine case in The Hague, the cost to the country in damaged ties with its giant neighbor is incalculable, Mendoza said.

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“The largest item is about the broken relationship with China — that is a cost which cannot even be estimated,” he said in an interview with CNN Philippines. “Excellent relations with your neighbor — especially in this case China — is a value to the country."

He said "there was relative peace and quiet in the South China Sea" during the administration of President Gloria Arroyo, before her successor, Benigno Aquino III, decided to challenge China’s nine-dash line by filing the case before an international tribunal.

That move angered Beijing, which continues to insist on settling disputes in bilateral talks. It rejected the Tribunal’s decision.

"Ngayon nanalo tayo. Anong ibig sabihin ng panalo?” Mendoza said. “Iyong shoals o reefs – atin yan. Pero ngayon, iyong shoals o reefs noong araw … hindi na shoals o reefs — naging islands na dahil sa reclamation ng China."

[Translation: Now, we have won. What does our victory mean? Those shoals or reefs – they were ours. But now, those shores or reefs that were there before … are no longer shoals or reefs – they are now islands after China’s reclamation.]

He said China may have been prompted to build the artificial islands after the Philippines filed its case in January 2013.

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As China currently occupies the disputed territories, it may be difficult for the Philippines to assert its rights that were affirmed by the Tribunal, especially since Beijing said it will not accept the ruling.

Former Interior Secretary Rafael Alunan, who served under President Fidel Ramos, believes that the Aquino administration made the right decision to pursue legal action against China.

In a Facebook post, he said this move will pave the way for other claimant countries to pursue cases against Beijing. It has also given the Philippines a legal and moral high ground in future negotiations with China.

"Our winning strategy now provides claimant countries a legal basis to engage in meaningful dispute resolution with China and each other," he said.

"We must rally the UN's General Assembly, particularly the 167 member states who signed the UNCLOS, to apply peer pressure on China to comply. This must be complemented by a well-managed global campaign to keep the world well-informed of developments," he added.

The Tribunal's decision does not immediately end the dispute in the South China Sea but could lead to a final resolution of the conflict, which the Philippines doesn’t want to escalate.

After the Tribunal announced its ruling, Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay welcomed the decision but immediately called “on all those concerned to exercise restraint and sobriety.”