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Back WPS stance with action, says expert

Gabbie Parlade

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The national government’s stand on the West Philippine Sea (WPS) needs to be supported by consistent action as future developments continue, an expert in the maritime affairs said on Thursday.

Director Jay Batongbacal of the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea said that the public should remain vigilant in asserting the country’s claim.

“We have to always keep watch that we do remain consistent and that government officials do not make statements that undermine the victory in the arbitration,” he said in a television interview.

He said it is mostly advisable to do so especially with a known relation between Philippines and China that may now somewhat be affected by the recent pronouncements of President Rodrigo Duterte.

In his perspective, Duterte’s statement may cause an issue on the country’s credibility with China especially after years of being accommodating towards them.

This is why Batongbacal commended his speech at the United Nations General Assembly stating that it was a good start in forming a more unified stance against China along with other member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) which may share the same sentiments.

“This provides an opportunity for them to actually talk and come to a unified position on at least certain issues now like protecting the respective Exclusive Economic Zones,” he said.

Stronger response
Through this action, he said that it will form a stronger response against China which prompts a weaker chance at dividing the nations.

“China will not be able to keep resorting to its divide and conquer tactics and compelling the ASEAN states to just deal with it on a bilateral basis now without any coordination with the Southeast Asian countries, not even coordinating their positions, which weakens their bargaining hand,” he stressed.

He said that there had been a number of instances where the Philippines could’ve asserted their claim such as in the reported damages in marine life from past years that robbed many of their source of livelihood.

But the marine affairs expert said that with Duterte’s speech being announced at an international assembly gives hope, provided that assertions in following months will be pushed through.

A few of the factors that he noted which prompted for a sudden change in the President’s stand on the matter were possibly due to national security reasons.

Batongbacal cited that China’s aggressive claim over the disputed sea as seen in other ASEAN member states and in the Philippines as well were likewise one of the main elements which caused the temporary abrogation of the Visiting Forces Agreement.

On Wednesday, the president’s statement in the assembly was also welcomed by other top officials in the country who have also been pushing for the government to assert the Philippines’ won territory.

Set aside anew
But hardly had the hosannas been heaped, Malacañang said it would “set aside” the 2016 arbitral ruling for the meantime.

In his briefing Thursday, presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said the Philippines would instead continue its trade and investments with China, since it appears that the sea row’s resolution might not be possible “in our lifetime.”

“The President has been consistent — we will move on matters that we could move forward on including trade and investments,” Roque said.

“We will, for the time being, set this aside because I don’t think the resolution of the territorial dispute is forthcoming in our lifetime,” he added.

Roque even refused to call the President’s latest statements as “strong,” saying the latter merely reiterated existing government policies before the 193-member United Nations General Assembly (UNGA).

“It’s a restatement of what has been the Philippine policy on China that we cannot neglect our win at the Hague,” Roque said.

Meanwhile, Roque told former Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario that he should not dictate President Duterte’s next move to address the maritime dispute.

Roque said this after Del Rosario urged the government to take the “next step” of “putting into reality” the President’s invocation of the 2016 arbitral ruling before the UN.

Roque even questioned the former diplomat’s “special qualifications” to tell the President what he should do, saying that it was under his leadership at the Department of Foreign Affairs when the country lost control of Scarborough Shoal in 2012 during a standoff between Philippine and Chinese forces.

with MJ BLANCAFLOR

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