Two years ago today, the Philippines won a major legal victory over China. An international tribunal ruled on July 12, 2016, that China’s sweeping territorial claims in the South China Sea were invalid. But now, on what should be a day of celebration, some are using sarcasm to convey the disappointment over what’s transpired since the ruling.
In Manila and other cities today, residents woke up to red banners hanging from footbridges reading, “Welcome to the Philippines, province of China,” complete with the Chinese flag and Chinese characters.
The banners highlight what many consider the failure of president Rodrigo Duterte to assert the nation’s rights in the disputed waters. China’s claims, based on its nine-dash line, overlap with the exclusive economic zone that international law accords to the Philippines and other countries in the region, including Vietnam. The zone extends out 200 nautical miles (370 km, 230 miles).
China expects joint oil and natural gas exploration in the areas of overlap, even though it has no right at all to those resources, which according to international law should go solely to the coastal nation (pdf, p. 37).
Critics have accused Duterte of setting aside the ruling, which was announced a few weeks after he assumed office on June 30, 2016. They say he’s adopted a defeatist attitude regarding China’s aggressive tactics in the waterway, rather than using the verdict to rally international pressure against Beijing. Since the ruling, China has continued to fortify and militarize islands in the sea, including artificial ones it’s built atop reefs, causing environmental damage. One of them, Mischief Reef, is just 217 km (135 miles) from a Philippine coast and now has missiles.
Not everyone was amused by the banners.
“Whatever the motives may be, it’s really not funny, especially on this particular day,” former solicitor general Florin Hilbay told The Source, a program on CNN Philippines.
Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said the banners were peddling a lie, and argued the government does assert its sovereign rights over the disputed waters. He said the signs were the handiwork of enemies of the government.
Ironically, Duterte himself may have given the pranksters the idea for the banners. In a Feb. 19 speech in Manila attended by China’s ambassador and Chinese-Filipino businessmen, he joked that China could make the Philippines its province. The following week he backed China’s proposal for joint exploration of energy resources in the sea, saying it was better than going to war. “It’s like co-ownership,” he said. “It’s like the two of us would own that.”