"Never Give Up, Never Surrender” West Philippine Sea
“Independence demands that we always act and assert our sovereign rights. Kung tatahimik ka lang dahil takot ka ay hindi ka independent. Takot ka,” said Philippine Maritime Law Expert Prof. Jay Batongbacal. Citing a movie quote, he added, “Despite all the challenges, despite the disparity in power… ‘Never give up, never surrender.’”
(If you’re going to stay silent because you’re afraid then you’re not independent. You’re simply afraid.)
He stated this in reference to the current stance of the Philippine Government on China’s intrusion on the West Philippine Sea (WPS). He debunked the claim: Wala tayong magagawa. Gigiyerahin tayo. (We can’t do anything because China will engage us in a war.) “It’s completely false.”
Batongbacal spoke in an online forum Kalayaan at Karagatan (Freedom and Seas) on 14 July 2021. The event was held in celebration of the fifth anniversary of the historic legal victory of the Philippines over China on the maritime dispute in the WPS. The Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) ruled that the Philippines has sovereign rights over WPS, and has jurisdiction over 200 nautical miles exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
“Napakahalaga na lahat ng ating statement, lahat ng ating ginagawa sa karagatan ay sang-ayon dito sa award… (It is very important that all our statements, all our maritime activities are consistent with the Award…) The enforcement of the Award is not dependent on a third party, but primarily on the Philippines,” Batongbacal emphasized.
Leaders who act with courage
In a video message, Philippine Vice President Leni Robredo expressed deep concern that the country has yet to fully leverage the decision of the PCA. “The consequences of what is happening in the West Philippine Sea will stretch beyond our terms of office, and even beyond our lives,” lamented Robredo. “The ruling’s assertion is powerfully simple: China's claim over these waters holds no water. It is the Filipino people, our fisherfolk, our industries who have the right to live off of its resources,” she asserted.
The reefs in the Kalayaan Island Group in the WPS produce 62,000-91,000 metric tons of fish annually, enough to feed 1.6-2.3 million Filipinos per year.
Robredo stressed the value of multilateral action that operates based on respect of EEZ, and on freedom of navigation. On the homefront, she encouraged Filipinos to rally behind leaders “who are willing to act with courage and resolve… leaders who refuse to think in terms of false binaries: appeasement or annihilation, conflict or submission, our lives or our land.”
Remembering the late President Benigno Aquino III who led the filing of the case against China, Robredo urged support for “leaders and advocates who will work to secure what is rightfully ours.” “Stand up for what is right. I have no doubt that we will overcome any challenge,” she concluded.
Worth fighting for
“The rich fisheries and biodiversity of the WPS is worth fighting for. It is not only an important source of food for millions of Filipinos. It is also part of our natural heritage and identity,” declared Batongbacal. Retired Philippine Navy Vice Admiral Giovanni Carlo Bacordo echoed this: “Guard it because it is ours.”
The Philippines is an archipelagic country, with water covering more than 80 percent of its territory. It shares sea borders in the west and south where there are overlapping maritime claims. Given this, Bacordo pointed out that the government should allot more funds for the navy.
He recognized the current modernization program in the Philippine Navy, which was stymied by the pandemic. “We should continue the modernization program, whoever is the commander chief,” called Bacordo. He then enumerated the ideal number of watercrafts necessary to safeguard Philippine patrimony: 24 offshore patrol vessels, 12 corvettes, 5 submarines, and 24 amphibious assault vehicles.
Bacordo also underscored the need to restructure the Department of Defense – add an undersecretary for the navy, separate from the undersecretary of the army and the air force. “It is never too late to strengthen the navy,” he said.
The discussion was facilitated by Marites Vitug, author of the acclaimed book Rock Solid, a narration of how the Philippines won its maritime case against China. The forum was co-organized by the Center of Liberalism and Democracy (CLD) and the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF).
When asked what liberals can do about China’s expansionism activities, CLD Chair Gerry Bulatao shared the efforts to get the Liberals on board to enforce the Award and exercise jurisdiction over WPS. He also mentioned that Liberal legislators will be rallied to support the request to augment the navy’s budget and have the necessary resources to defend Philippine maritime territory.
Interim Head of FNF Philippine Office Vanessa Steinmetz, for her part, talked about Germany’s adoption of the policy guidelines for the Indo-Pacific region. Published in September 2020, the document is seen as a positive development towards multilaterism, but is also criticized as excessively cautious vis-à-vis China. Germany declared that it would not send its frigate within 12 nautical miles of any territory claimed by China.
Watch the forum here.