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‘We stood up to China because it was the right thing to do’— former President Aquino

By FORMER PRESIDENT BENIGNO AQUINO III Published Jul 12, 2021 3:24 pm

(Former President Benigno Aquino III died on June 24, 2021. This acceptance speech for the 2021 JW Diokno Awards, which recognized his efforts to assert the country’s sovereignty in the West Philippine Sea, was first published by the PCIJ. Aquino brought China to international court when he was president, resulting in a landmark decision dismissing Beijing's nine-dash-line claim over the South China Sea. The award was given on Feb. 26, 2021. This transcript was provided by former Deputy Presidential Spokesman Abigail “Abi” Valte.)

In 1988 during the meeting between my mother, former President Corazon Aquino, and then leader of the People’s Republic of China Deng Xiaoping, he said to my mother: “We can talk about  the South China Sea for the next 50 years but for now, let us talk about other matters at hand.” 

That statement of Deng Xiaoping perhaps tries to address that when there are competing claims over territories, no country will give up its territorial claim. Even in our constitution, a president must undertake an oath to conserve and develop our patrimony and is therefore tasked to protect the country’s sovereignty, people and territory. However, contentions on territories should not be a hindrance to having a mutually beneficial relationship between states. 

The last straw that pushed us over the edge was the betrayal of China at Bajo de Masinloc. At the height of the incident, the United States mediated between us and China wherein both parties agreed to leave the territory in question as a show of good faith and willingness to cooperate in order to ease the tension. As agreed, the Philippines pulled out our ship, (but) Chinese state vessels stayed in our territory claiming that no such agreement was made.

The practice of apprehending foreign fishing vessels caught poaching in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of countries, confiscating their loot, fining them, and repatriating them has long been the standard procedure for decades. Let me emphasize that this is being done by all the countries in the region, not just the Philippines, and continues to this day.  

During my incumbency, the Communist Chinese Government decided to change this practice and became much more assertive. In early 2012, Forum Energy, an authorized service contractor of the Philippines, was surveying Reed Bank when they were driven away by Chinese vessels claiming ownership of the territory.

That same year, the Philippine Navy happen to sight eight  Chinese fishing vessels illegally fishing in our waters and poaching protected species in Bajo de  Masinloc. Abruptly, two Chinese maritime surveillance ships intervened and prevented our navy  from arresting the poachers. 

Similarly, a French archeologist aboard a Philippine vessel authorized by the National Museum  of the Philippines to explore wrecks in Bajo de Masinloc was also driven away by Chinese marine surveillance vessels claiming the expedition was illegal. These were just the beginning of  numerous infractions of the People’s Republic of China against our country. 

The last straw that pushed us over the edge was the betrayal of China at Bajo de Masinloc. At  the height of the incident, the United States mediated between us and China wherein both parties  agreed to leave the territory in question as a show of good faith and willingness to cooperate in  order to ease the tension. As agreed, the Philippines pulled out our ship, (but) Chinese state vessels stayed in our territory claiming that no such agreement was made. 

So, the question now is how do we respond to this new assertiveness and aggression? In the  simplest of terms there are two choices; the first option, as a head of state of an ASEAN Country  stated “that is the way of the world, they are a big country and we are a small country, what can  one do?” which I took to mean acquiescing to whatever China wanted because there is nothing  we can do, or option two, we stand our ground and fight for your rights. 

President Aquino and sovereignty: “We stand our ground and fight for your rights.” Photo from Aquino’s Facebook page 

This ordeal of dealing with China is obviously uncharted waters for us. We tried all of the diplomatic channels, both formal diplomatic channels and even back channel routes but we were  always met with dismissal and the unwavering answer that the territories in question are  “indisputably theirs.” We stated our case in all fora available to us. We tried to gain allies to have 

China be in a more reasonable mindset. Sec. Del Rosario can probably give you the exact  hundreds of diplomatic notes and protests that we sent to China. The amount of paper used could probably earn a keep for a recycler to last for weeks. 

We graduated our response to China's interferences but when the Chinese Communist Party decided to push the envelope and see how far they could go, we had to put our foot down and  challenge their assertions. The response to all this belligerence had to be nuanced. On the one hand, we had to be conscious of helping them save face to enable them to do the right thing. We, however, had to respond strongly enough lest we encourage them to continue to push and  encroach on our territories. We needed to say enough is enough and stood up to their violations. 

Standing up to a giant is no small feat and we at least had to try to get allies in this fight. We had  a lot of sympathy but at the same time a lot were also hesitant to displease the economic behemoth that is China and lose the attendant benefits of a good relationship with them.  

We tried all of the diplomatic channels, both formal diplomatic channels and even back channel routes but we were always met with dismissal and the unwavering answer that the territories in question are ‘indisputably theirs.’

The situation seemed to have changed these days but back then it was a lonely ship. Even in the country, we tried to unify everyone in our country from the onset before we decided to stand up  to China. Paraphrasing one of our senior leaders from the legislature: “If that is what they are doing we are solidly behind you” but in the midst of our battle started to question anything and  everything that I did particularly in the back channel talks.  

China was not content to just increase the pressure but continue to aggravate the tension by building artificial islands, harassing our fishermen, and even trying to stop us from resupplying our forces in Kagitingan Reef. This attempt to thwart our resupply gave us the opportunity to show  them the skill, ingenuity, and courage of our naval forces all while using antiquated equipment.

Their actions do not only violate the UNCLOS but also violates the Declaration on the Conduct of  Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) entered into freely by the government of the People’s  Republic of China in together with government of the member states of ASEAN, and even the  Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species which China joined unreservedly in  1981. 

Let me emphasize that China was the one who changed the status quo, they decided to push the  boundaries and try to see the limits of what they can get away with. While a lot were sympathetic to our cause we were truly on our own. We learned from our experience at Bajo de Masinloc that  even another super power like the United States of America cannot make China abide by its  commitments. During these circumstances that the avenue of going to the Permanent Court of  Arbitration was brought up.  

I digress and would like to direct your attention to China’s claim on historical rights over the nine dash line. Do you realize that even the Chinese government and their scholars do not know  exactly where these 9 dash lines reside? Why do I say that? I challenge anybody to show any  official document from them stating the particular longitudinal and latitudinal points of these nine  dash lines. There is none. 

China claims historical rights, so let’s look at history. In a book written by China scholar Edward  L. Dreyer entitled Zheng He: China and the Oceans in the Early Ming Dynasty, 1405 – 1433, he  chronicled the voyage of Admiral Zheng He based on Chinese evidence. Zheng He was an admiral in the Ming Dynasty in the 15th century who set sail with 1,000 ships, and the book clearly  elaborated that these Chinese vessels sailed only to showcase their wealth and power but did not  discover any new routes or occupied any territories. Therefore, what is the historical right? 

“We consciously insulated our economy from them due to their tendency to punish those they were unhappy with by turning off  the economic faucets. The rest is history.”

There was a joke that was circulating early on that says that to the Chinese “what is ours is ours, what is yours we share.” Sadly, what started out as a joke seemed to have turned into reality. More and more we came to realize that to the Chinese Government, their viewpoint is the only valid one, the concerns that must be addressed are their concerns alone, and that their desires and interests are the only goals worth striving for. 

Given all of these, going to the Permanent Court of Arbitration was our best choice. We prepared fully. We studied the matter thoroughly, enjoined the advice of countless experts, sought the best  legal advice and chose the best legal counsel to represent our interest. We were confident of the merits of our case but we understood fully that it was still a gamble, after all the Permanent Court  of Arbitration does not exist in a vacuum nor are they insulated from “realpolitik.” Despite all these, we hoped against all hope that in bringing our case to that forum, in that battlefield, there would at  least be some parity. 

The People's Republic of China, cognizant of the fact that they had no legal leg to stand on, decided not to participate officially in the arbitration, instead they went through back channels and pressure groups. They demanded that we slow down the arbitration and withdraw our claims altogether. We stood our ground and absorbed the consequences. We consciously insulated our economy from them due to their tendency to punish those they were unhappy with by turning off  the economic faucets. The rest is history. 

Perhaps we have learned a lot in dealing with a regime that is totalitarian and so used to getting  its way. A regime that when it talks it expects everybody else to follow. We disagree. Embarking  on this arbitration, even in the worst case scenario, puts us no worse than where we already were. On the other hand, potentially it can solve this long standing dispute and firmly establish who is  truly entitled to these territories. 

We advanced our interest and I submit that in doing so we advanced the interest of the rest of the  world in promoting stability in the region in contrast to China’s continuous destabilizing activities.  We stood up to them at the onset and now so many others are doing the same. We stood up to  China because it was the right thing to do. China's aggressiveness gave us the opportunity to  finally resolve this long standing dispute in this part of the region. 

China has grown tremendously, a product of their access to resources and markets around the  world. This growth emanates from the stability brought about by the faithful adherence of  agreements entered into. Conversely, it will cease to be if all these agreements are lopsided and adhered to only by some. 

Whenever I am given an honor, I always say that I am just the face of the efforts of so many: Sec. Albert Del Rosario, Justice Antonio Carpio, and Justice Conchita Carpio-Morales, the career  officials of the DFA, members of the private sector, a number of our political leaders, and  ultimately the Filipino people who stood up for what is right. 

We advanced our interest and I submit that in doing so we advanced the interest of the rest of the world in promoting stability in the region in contrast to China’s continuous destabilizing activities. We stood up to them at the onset and now so many others are doing the same. We stood up to China because it was the right thing to do.

I accept this award you are bestowing in the name of all these people who strove and fought for all of us. This award is meaningful given the current political atmosphere in the country.  

I am very fortunate to have my parents as examples and others like Ka Pepe, an exemplar of  excellence, a Law Bar and Accountancy Board Examinations top notcher. Ka Pepe constantly demonstrated doing what is right as opposed to doing that which is convenient and probably  profitable. He could’ve been a corporate lawyer, acquired wealth and lived a quiet life. He could  have remained with the party in power but decided to become independent when that party left  its direction. He could have chosen to an easier path but instead chose to fight the good fight, the right fight, regardless of the cost. 

Undoubtedly his contributions to the recovery of our freedoms and our democracy are invaluable,  he fought and won the good fight. To be recognized by the JW Foundation as a follower of his  ideals is a tremendous honor. Thank you very much. 

Banner photo from Aquino’s Facebook page