The nerve of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen to say that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations has opted not to internationalize the West Philippine Sea dispute! The group in fact approved no such resolution. If at all, Asean has failed to make any stand on the matter. But this is not to say that it has opted for what China wants: bilateral negotiations.
I have more than enough experience dealing with Chinese media and officials to know what they mean when they say bilateral relations: all tensions will disappear if and when the Philippines admit that it has no title to both the Panatag shoal and the Kalayaan group of Islands. Yes, it’s not enough that we are no match to China either militarily, politically, or economically. Bilateral negotiations mean that surrender is the only way to go for the Philippines.
It was hence but proper for President Noynoy Aquino to uphold the Philippine interest even at the risk of appearing undiplomatic. While Hun Sen was saying falsities, our President bravely stood up and said: “for the record, the Asean route is to the only route for us.” This was immediately after Hun Sen declared that Asean had agreed to negotiate with China on these disputes.
Even if China genuinely wants bilateral talks to peacefully end the West Philippine Sea disputes, why should it involve only two countries? Certainly, Kalayaan is claimed by at least five countries. What happens to the other claimants? And if China is able to show that its claim over the waters in the triangular area between Macclesfield Bank, Panatag, and the Kalayaan group of islands is legal, has not the international community acquired an interest in this dispute because these waters are also one of the world’s busiest shipping routes? Certainly, this fact alone, together with concerns over pollution in this busy route, should warrant a multilateral approach to this dispute.
The fact that Hun Sen was downright pro-China should not come as a surprise. He is one of the remaining despots in the world largely because of his China connection. This despite being part of the Pol Pot regime that committed genocide that is now being prosecuted by the Extraordinary Chambers of Cambodia. Certainly, Hun Sen was not only wrong in what he was saying when he was interrupted by President Aquino. He is also no match to our PNoy in terms of moral stature.
In any case, certainly, internationalizing the dispute should include the option to bring the dispute, at least Panatag, to the compulsory and binding dispute settlement procedure of the UNCLOS. Since, both China and the Philippines have ratified this Convention, the dispute procedure would be mandatory on issues involving any issue of interpretation or application of the Convention. As I have said many times in the past, despite the ill-advised 2009 Archipelagic Baselines Law that appended both the Kalayaan group and Panatag to our territory under the so-called “regime of islands”, the issue of whether Panatag is an island, even if only five very small rocks are permanently above water, or a “rock”, or “geographic formations”, which as held by the International Court of justice pertains to the state that has title or rights over the waters surrounding them, are all issues of interpretation which should be resolved through binding arbitration under UNCLOS. This issue may also be the subject of preliminary measures by the International Tribunal on the Law of the Seas.