MANILA, Philippines – The Philippines plans to resume its talks with China to settle their dispute over the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) once an arbitral tribunal rules on their historic case, likely by 2016.
"We really have to go back to bilateral talks. Once we have a decision by the court which is favorable, we can at least negotiate from a stronger position," Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) spokesman Charles Jose said in a media briefing Thursday, April 23.
Jose said the Philippines hopes the arbitral tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration based in The Hague, The Netherlands, will rule on the case before the Aquino administration ends on June 30, 2016.
The arbitral tribunal on Wednesday, April 22, said it will conduct a hearing on the case in July 2015.
"That decision of the tribunal, especially when it's favorable to us, I think, will have a long-term effect and benefit. Once we have the decision, I think we can return to bilateral negotiations," Jose said.
China refuses to join the arbitration case filed by the Philippines in January 2013.
Instead, the Asian giant stresses the need for bilateral or one-on-one talks with the Philippines. It rejects the involvement of any third party, and views the filing of a case as "unfriendly." (READ: China to PH: Friends avoid lawsuits)
The Philippines, for its part, says it filed the arbitration case after it "exhausted all political and diplomatic avenues for a peaceful negotiated settlement of its maritime dispute with China."
In 2013, the Philippines said "no progress has been made" after 17 years of consultations with China.
Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said the Philippines "pursued arbitration precisely to preserve a valued friendship." (READ: China to Philippines: 'We're destined to be friends')
Photo courtesy of the Chinese Embassy in the Philippines
No international police
Observers, however, doubt if the arbitration case will help especially because China is using its military might to stake its claim over the South China Sea. The Philippines has one of Asia's weakest militaries.
China's most recent show of force is its reclamation work in the disputed waters.
Also, no international police can enforce the arbitral tribunal's ruling, as Manila relies on "moral suasion" against Beijing.
In an interview with Rappler in June 2014, maritime law expert Jay Batongbacal warned against the "practical implication" of China's moves. "What China is demonstrating is, in the end, ultimately, the law will not help," he said. (READ: Q and A: Case vs China 'not enough,' expert says)
Batongbacal explained: "The best-case scenario for us will be, after winning the case, the two sides decide to go to the negotiating table. Like I said before, whatever the tribunal decides, we will always go back to the two countries sitting down to talk it out, because the alternative to that is for one of them to go to war. And we know who wins in that scenario. So we will always go back to the negotiating table."
Politically speaking, bilateral talks with China might also be the Philippines' path by 2016.
Vice President Jejomar Binay, currently the leading candidate to replace President Benigno Aquino III in 2016, is pushing for bilateral talks between Manila and Beijing.
He stressed the need to preserve ties with the rising superpower, the Philippines' third largest trading partner. Binay said, "May pera po ang China, kailangan po natin ng kapital (China has money, we need capital)." – Rappler.com
Paterno R. Esmaquel II is a senior reporter leading Rappler’s coverage of religion and foreign affairs. He finished MA Journalism in Ateneo and MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email him at email@example.com.