Duterte lauded for sea row stance, urged to turn PH arbitral victory into reality

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, September 23) — After finally raising the Philippines' legal victory over the 2016 South China Sea ruling, President Rodrigo Duterte is now being called to continue implementing concrete actions that would solidify the country's claims in the disputed territory.

Public officials and foreign relations experts on Wednesday commended Duterte for asserting the country's rights over the West Philippine Sea in the 75th United Nations General Assembly, but noted that the administration has to get more support from other countries to further raise the issue.

"The next step is for our President and his administration to put in reality the invocation of the Arbitral Award: our Government should work earnestly to get the support of more countries so that the Arbitral Award will be raised more emphatically next year, for the UNGA 2021," former Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert Del Rosario said in a statement. He also called on Filipinos not to waste such an opportunity.

This was the first time that Duterte appeared before the international body in his four-year presidency. He reiterated that the Philippines rejects any attempt to undermine the arbitral tribunal ruling that largely favored the country's claims over the West Philippine Sea.

Former Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio also commended Duterte's strong stance on the issue. He expressed hope that the administration "will implement across all levels" a policy that will protect the West Philippine Sea in the negotiations for the Code of Conduct, and gather more support from the international community.

In an interview with CNN Philippines' Balitaan, Maritime law expert Jay Batongbacal expressed a similar sentiment, and said that "words are still different from actions."

"Kailangan ipakita ito consistently, na pinanindigan natin iyong ruling at hindi ito salita lang para magpasikat sa UN."

[Translation: We should be able to show this stace consistently, that we stand by the ruling, and these are not just mere words to impress the UN.]

Meanwhile, former Philippine ambassador to the United Nations Lauro Baja Jr. said that while Duterte took a "significant step" in raising the arbitral tribunal ruling, the move came four years after the award, and the statement could have been more forceful.

"[Duterte] could have been more forceful in espousing our cause, in much the same vein as he was forceful in the question of drugs and human rights. But as a fresh step, it's a significant fresh step," he told CNN Philippines' New Day.

Baja said that Duterte could have also been more assertive in telling China "to adhere to a decision by the UN body, to respect the provisions of UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea), and to refrain from what they are doing in the area."

The UNCLOS is an international treaty established to define coastal and maritime boundaries and regulate seabed exploration outside territorial claims. The arbitral tribunal that ruled on the Philippines' case against China was created under a provision of UNCLOS, with the Permanent Court of Arbitration based in The Hague serving as registry.

Duterte also thanked nations which supported the tribunal's ruling, which he called "a triumph of reason over rashness, a law over disorder, of amity over ambition."

Meanwhile, Senator Panfilo Lacson said that Duterte's firm assertion can finally erase notions of being a "slave" due to the country's soft stance on China.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. responded to this by saying that Duterte was never a slave, but rather a "slave to the reality he inherited" when the Chinese authorities stayed in the disputed territory after a stand-off with the Philippine navy.

Philippine Ambassador to China Chito Sta. Romana also described Duterte's speech as an "excellent articulation of the administration's independent foreign policy," reflective of an approach that will support the UN at a time of escalating global tensions.

The tribunal ruled that there was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights over most of the South China Sea using its "nine-dash line" assertion. It also recognized Philippine sovereign rights in marine features within its exclusive economic zone and said Beijing violated those rights by interfering with fishing and petroleum exploration as well as constructing artificial islands.

China has repeatedly refused to recognize the tribunal ruling and continued to reclaim islands in the disputed areas for military and research purposes.