Beijing pushed the Philippines too far on the South China Sea with just two little words

The Scarborough Shoal.
The Scarborough Shoal.
Image: NASA Landsat
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Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte’s embrace of China in recent months has included dismissing the international tribunal ruling that his predecessor Benigno Aquino III championed.

The ruling, which found this July that Beijing was repeatedly breaking international law, and causing extensive environmental damage, in the South China Sea, is nothing more than “a piece of paper with four corners,” Duterte said after his election, while suggesting that it might make more sense to “put off” an argument with China about the ruling.

Your fish is my fish. We will talk, we will resolve, it is not the time to go to war,” he said during an interview with China’s state television station that was broadcast on Oct. 18, during his first-ever state visit in Beijing. Fish are an important flashpoint, especially those in the Scarborough Shoal, where Filipino fishermen have been barred from what the tribunal ruled was their own waters by Chinese ships.

But the talks that Duterte did have with his Chinese counterparts about the highly trafficked waterway came to naught, and he left Beijing without an agreement that Filipino fishermen could return to the Scarborough Shoal. They fell apart because Beijing pressed too hard, insisting on language that would suggest Duterte discredits the ruling entirely, according to Harry Roque, a Filipino congressman who accompanied Duterte to China, who cited a source involved in the negotiations.

Specifically, Beijing insisted any statement on fishermen returning to the area would say China would “allow” or “permit” them to be there, Roque said in a press conference Wednesday (Oct. 26). “The reason it was not formally announced, and that it was not put in writing, is we don’t want to use the word ‘allow’ or ‘permit,’ because it will [contradict] the Hague ruling,” he said. China’s language proposal was “unacceptable as far as the Philippines was concerned,” he said.

Duterte’s government also invoked the United Nations laws on which the tribunal decision was made in a joint statement with Japan’s prime minister Shinzo Abe issued Oct. 26, as he visited Japan:

With regard to the [ruling], the two leaders acknowledged the importance of a rules-based approach to the peaceful settlement of maritime disputes without resorting to the threat or use of force, in accordance with the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the UN Charter, and other relevant international conventions.

The two leaders also stressed the importance of “freedom of navigation and overflight” in the South China Sea.

Beijing may not be pleased, at least judging by what China’s state media has reported. Duterte “should respect the consensus he reached with China during his visit last week and avoid being influenced by Japan,” the state-run China Daily said on Thursday (Oct. 27).