Aquino: The president who brought China to court

MANILA, Philippines – It was not an easy decision for Philippine President Benigno Simeon Cojuangco Aquino III, leader of a developing country heavily dependent on China when it comes to trade.

China, after all, is the Philippines’ second biggest trading partner, based on the latest government statistics released in September 2015. 

China, too, is the homeland of at least 1.5% of the Philippines’ population. Many of these Chinese Filipinos wield huge influence in business and other spheres, as in the case of two of the Philippines’ richest men, Henry Sy and Lucio Tan.

Aquino himself hails from a Chinese family. The Cojuangco clan, to which he belongs, comes from the line of Chinese immigrant Co Yu Hwan, who moved to the Philippines in 1861. (READ: Aquino's Chinese ancestry fuels anger in Beijing)

In a roundtable interview with Rappler, Aquino admitted that he initially had some concerns about suing China: "I won’t say I wasn’t bothered, I wasn’t apprehensive about some of the issues that we had to face. Going against China, how will China treat us if we dare?"

"But being confident that the people are there, that if you present the facts to them, they will see how reasonable our position, how logical, how correct. We can count on their support," the 56-year-old outgoing president said.

Long-lasting solution

Aquino, the son of two icons of democracy, ended up making history. He became the only president who brought China to court over a dispute involving the South China Sea, parts of which the Philippines claims as the West Philippine Sea. 

Under Aquino as the chief architect of Philippine foreign policy, the Philippines filed an arbitration case against China over the West Philippine Sea on January 22, 2013.

The Aquino administration initiated these arbitration proceedings after a standoff between Philippine and Chinese vessels in the disputed Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal) in the West Philippine Sea in April 2012.

The case is pending before an arbitral tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, Netherlands. The Philippines expects a ruling in late June or early July of this year. (READ: EXPLAINER: Philippines' 5 arguments vs China)

By filing this case, the Philippines stopped bilateral or one-on-one talks with China – the means preferred by China to settle the maritime row.

The Aquino administration said it brought China to court to secure a long-lasting solution to the sea dispute. 

This will also allow the Philippines to "at least negotiate from a stronger position" when it returns to bilateral talks with China, Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs spokesman Charles Jose said. 

'Very good job,' analyst says 

Ernest Bower, senior adviser for the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the Aquino administration "did a very good job."

Referring to the Aquino administration, Bower added: "They actually put their actions behind their words. They not only talked about rule of law, but they took the court case to The Hague."

"I thought that the foreign secretary, Albert del Rosario, did a very good job of driving for more ASEAN unity and engagement. And he made it clear to the Americans that the Philippines was serious about this issue," Bower added.

He said Del Rosario’s efforts led to the signing of the Philippines-US Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) in 2014. The EDCA gives American troops greater access to Philippine military facilities. 

Bower said the EDCA is "probably moving the US-Philippine relationship to a new point; a new high point."

Security analyst Jose Antonio Custodio, for his part, pointed out one of the shortcomings of the Aquino administration’s approach toward the West Philippine Sea dispute.

"It was too much focused on the diplomatic angle and it did not really have any efforts, following 2012, to protect, for example, Scarborough Shoal…in a physical way," he said.

While the Philippines pursues an arbitration case against China, Custodio said, "I would have appreciated it if there been an effort to defend the fishermen also, at the same time."

In Panatag Shoal, for instance, fishermen have reported being blocked by Chinese vessels from approaching fishing grounds. (READ: PH in The Hague: China robs us of right to fish)

'What is ours is ours'

Custodio warned: "If the Chinese sense that we're only good for diplomacy but when it comes to things on the ground, we're a little bit averse, then they will keep on probing and probing and pushing and pushing you if you don't push back. This is their typical bully thing." 

At the same time, other analysts say the US has not committed itself enough to the Philippines in the sea dispute. How, for example, will the US come to the Philippines’ aid in case China attacks this Southeast Asian country?

In any case, Aquino said he did what matters most: protect his land from an aggressive neighbor. 

He illustrated this well in his State of the Nation Address in 2011, when he compared the contested Recto Bank (Reed Bank) in the West Philippine Sea with a busy street in Manila called Recto Avenue.

"Kapag tumapak ka sa Recto Bank, para ka na ring tumapak sa Recto Avenue," Aquino said. (Setting foot on Recto Bank is no different from setting foot on Recto Avenue.)

The President stressed, "Malinaw ang pahiwatig natin ngayon sa buong mundo: Ang sa Pilipinas ay sa Pilipinas (Now, our message to the world is clear: What is ours is ours)." – Rappler.com

Paterno R. Esmaquel II

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 pat.esmaquel@rappler.com.

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