For seven years now, we at the Stratbase ADR Institute have been marking July 12 as a day of deep and profound significance. This was the date in 2016 when the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague ruled in favor of the Philippines and upheld our territorial rights in the West Philippine Sea against China. We had filed this case before the PCA during the administration of President Benigno Aquino III; the team was ably and passionately steered by the then Secretary of Foreign Affairs, former Ambassador Albert del Rosario — the ADR in our Stratbase ADR Institute.
This year, however, is the first July 12 that our beloved ADR is no longer with us. I would like to begin this piece with a quote from his concluding remarks for the adjournment of the hearing on the merits at the PCA.
“International law is the great equalizer among states,” he said, “It allows small countries to stand on an equal footing with more powerful states. Those who think ‘might makes right’ have it backwards. It is exactly the opposite, in that ‘right makes might.’”
We take comfort in these words uttered by a mentor and friend, a statesman and advocate, as we acknowledge the complicated nature of the threats that we confront in this complex and multi-polar world. While the international community has, over the years, worked to achieve global stability and economic prosperity, these threats – traditional, nontraditional, and evolving – carry the potential of upsetting the rules-based order that all these states have established and still struggle to maintain.
What else could bring greater peace and security to our people, after all, whether they live in the most advanced cities or the remotest areas, than to rest easy knowing that what is ours will never be taken from us, that no external forces will one day encroach into our spaces, and that all other countries existing in this sphere respect and revere the rules-based international order?
At the start of this administration last year, we had our doubts.
The immediately preceding administration of President Rodrigo Duterte had given us much to be frustrated about, our PCA victory notwithstanding. Even President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr.’s pronouncement during his first State of the Nation Address, where he famously said he would “not preside over any process that will abandon even one square inch of territory of the Republic of the Philippines to any power,” did not immediately assuage our fears. His “a friend to all, an enemy to none” rhetoric seemed too good to be true.
He spoke these words at a time when Pulse Asia, in a Stratbase-commissioned poll, had just found that 89% of Filipinos wanted the government to assert its rights in the West Philippine Sea as stipulated in the PCA decision. This sentiment has consistently run high despite the attempts of the previous leader to minimize the importance of the ruling, and despite the havoc created by the pandemic. Nine in 10 agreed that Mr. Marcos should invest in the capability of the Philippine Navy and the Philippine Coast Guard to protect our territory and marine resources in our Exclusive Economic Zone. Further, in the list of countries that the people trust, the United States came out first with 89% trust, followed by Australia (79%), Japan (78%), Germany (69%), South Korea (65%), and Great Britain/United Kingdom (64%).
As an organization that values evidence and track record over pronouncements and promises, Stratbase has been carefully following this administration’s efforts on this front for one year now. When Mr. Marcos defended his foreign policy and said it would only be primordially driven by the national interest, we asked ourselves, what could that possibly mean?
The new leader has had his share of foreign trips, has hosted guests on our home turf, and has participated in numerous bilateral and multilateral gatherings in the past year. The conversation channels he has established with his counterparts thus far appear to support the narrative that the Philippines is becoming a more active global state actor, promoting stronger and multifaceted relations with different countries. After all, friendships and alliances, especially with countries that share our values and commitment to the rule of law, are crucial to our national interest.
These are all good signs, but in no way make a success story — yet.
We also recognize that the protection of our territorial integrity is not the government’s job alone. Our people, who have demonstrated their awareness of these issues, must always be kept abreast of what is happening in the West Philippine Sea, and what is being done to counter these operations that violate the rule of law in our backyard, within the context of the Indo-Pacific region.
As we mark the anniversary of our victory at the Permanent Court of Arbitration, the real test is for us to continue in the struggle to actualize this victory. Our victory assures us that we are on the right side of history and provides a solid foundation for our acts. The challenge for us moving forward is how we can build on this foundation. We must commit that we will never allow this victory to be diminished and trampled on.
Defending our territory, asserting our sovereignty, and committing to uphold a rules-based international order in this dynamic, multipolar world is the right thing to do. It is the only thing to do.
With our real friends who share our values, let us defend the peace and stability of the West Philippine Sea, the Indo-Pacific, and the rules-based international order.
Victor Andres “Dindo” C. Manhit is the president of the Stratbase ADR Institute.