More than two years after the Tribunal on the South China Sea Arbitration issued its decision on the conflicting claims of the Philippines and People’s Republic of China (PROC) on the South China Sea (or West Philippine Sea), the dispute heats up once again when Chinese Coast Guards shooed away a team of Filipino television news crew saying that they were in the “sea area of the People’s Republic of China,” and that they had to secure permission from Beijing before they could conduct interviews or any activity in the area. Ironically, this happened despite the Tribunal ruling in favor of the Philippines.

Despite PROC’s insistence that the Tribunal does not have jurisdiction on the matter, the international court proceeded hearing the case on the basis of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS), to which both the Philippines and PROC are signatories.

The Law of the Sea

UNCLOS is the law that governs the earth’s oceans. To honor UNCLOS is to uphold the rule of law. Its conciliation provision is a mechanism that helps nations resolve disputes in a peaceful, fair, and equitable manner. As parties to the Convention, PROC is not exempt from the mechanism for the resolution of disputes set out in UNCLOS. In addition, pursuant to Article VII of the Convention, PROC’s non-participation to the proceedings does not deprive the Tribunal of jurisdiction.

The decision in favor of the Philippines should have settled the dispute. The Tribunal concluded that the Philippines has exclusive economic zone (EEZ) running 200 nautical miles from its coast, debunking PROC’s claims to living and non-living resources within the 9-dash line supposedly founded on historic rights. The Tribunal resolved that PROC’s claims have been extinguished upon signing the UNCLOS.

According to Judge Stanislaw Pawlak, one of the appointed judges in the Arbitral Tribunal, “The award was done to protect rights and clarify obligations of states with respect to the Convention under the auspices of International Law.” “The alternative,” he added, “would be domination of greater power politics.”

What gives?

Considering these backdrop of events, it comes as a surprise why President Duterte never falls short in adulation to his Chinese counterpart. He was quoted to saying “I simply love Xi Jinping. He understands my problem and is willing to help. Thank you, China.”

Or not, surmising where the indebtedness might be coming from.

Socioeconomic Secretary Ernesto Pernia reported that the Philippine economy grew by 6.8 percent in the first quarter of 2018, owing mostly to government expenditures. On 11 May 2018, Rappler reported that public construction and government consumption have been the primary drivers of the economy. Some sectors, however, have not been rosy. Agriculture, fishery, and forestry sectors have suffered losses. Imports and exports have also been dwindling.

Building a legacy

The Duterte Administration is embarking on 75 flagship infrastructure projects that are set to fill in the gaps of the past administrations. Included in these projects are the construction of six airports, nine railways, three bus rapid transits, 32 roads and bridges, and four seaports. By constructing these infrastructure projects, the government hopes to lure investments in the countryside, create jobs, and improve rural incomes, bring down the costs of production and improve logistics and mobility of people.

Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno estimated that a total of US$167 billion is needed to finance these projects under the “Build, Build, Build” scheme. The money would be sourced from PROC and is projected to balloon to US$452 billion, which makes the Philippines’s debt to GDP ratio to 197 percent. This situation, according to Forbes Magazine (13 May 2017) makes the Philippine economy second-to-worst in the world.

There are no official data on how the decline in the agriculture and fisheries sector might be attributed to the PROC’s assertion in the South China Sea. The Philippines is always frequented by typhoons that have significantly driven down agricultural production. There has also been an aggregate reduction in fish production. Historical data from the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) show that since 2008, there has been an average annual decline of 2.6 percent in the volume of commercial fishery production in the country.

Seven coastal provinces source their fish catch from the South China Sea. These are Ilocos Norte, Ilocos Sur, La Union, Pangasinan, Zambales, Bataan, and Palawan. There have been news reports and anecdotal evidence of Filipino fishers in these provinces who have aborted fishing in the disputed area out of fear.

Members of the Chinese Coast Guard have been forcibly asserting their country’s claims in the area, to the point of attacking the boats of Filipino fishers. Rather than risk their lives, these fishers decided not to fish in the disputed area after the harassment.

Volume of Fishery Production, South China Sea Coastal provinces, 2008-2017, Metric Tons

According to PSA historical data on fish production in the Philippines’s coastal provinces facing the West Philippine Sea, there is a generally decreasing volume on fish catch in these areas, except for the provinces of Zambales and Pangasinan, both of which managed to increase their fish production. The rest (Ilocos Norte, Ilocos Sur, La Union, and Palawan) have had decreasing fish catch since 2008.

Further studies are however required to establish whether the decrease in the volume of fish production in these coastal provinces is due to the encroachment of Chinese Coast Guards in the West Philippine Sea.

(To be concluded next issue)

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NOVA Z. NAVO is University Extension Specialist at the University of the Philippines – Institute for Small Scale Industries (UP ISSI). She specializes in policy researches on industry and enterprise development, SME Internationalization, and improving business environment. Ms. Navo finished her degree in Public Administration at the University of the Philippines in Diliman and was a recipient of the JDS Scholarship of the Japanese Government through which she acquired her Master of Arts Degree in Policy Science at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, Japan. She is currently enrolled at the UP School of Statistics doctoral program.

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