Category Archives: China

Suing China before the ICJ over COVID-19

Peter Tzeng of Foley & Hoag (the law firm behind our victory against China in the SCS arbitration) writes this excellent thought piece on suing China before the International Court of Justice.

We all know China’s usual stance on international litigation” : stay away from it, when it goes against your interest. And because state-to-state litigation in international law is pretty much a mirror of its largely consent-based system, the challenge is to find exceptional grounds against the general rule.

Here Tzeng discusses possible grounds for compulsory jurisdiction within the World Health Organization Charter, notably Article 75, which provides: “Any question or dispute concerning the interpretation or application of this Constitution which is not settled by negotiation or by the Health Assembly shall be referred to the International Court of Justice. He links here too an opinion piece I wrote on the question last March 22 for the Philippine Daily Inquirer, pointing to China’s abject failure to provide timely notification on the outbreak under the World Health Organization International Health Regulations (2005).

I would add a “catch-all” (and admittedly novel) argument to his proposal, under the law of state responsibility: that given the scale and effects of this pandemic — nearly all 193 countries affected, so far — perhaps an argument can be made from general international law that China has no choice but to arbitrate (cf Art. 42 of the ARSIWA).

The safety, security and health of the world is a fundamental and common interest of nations that a breach in IHR (2005) obligations triggers compulsory jurisdiction.

After all, its intentional and willing breach of such obligations under Art. 6 and 7, given the nature of the contagion, resulted in mass deaths around the world, and counting, not to mention massive disruptions in the economic, social, political, and religious life of billions around the world.

I will expound on this approach in another post.

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Filed under China, COVID-19, International Court of Justice, International Law, South China Sea, State, State Responsibility, Uncategorized, WHO

China, international law, and Covid-19

By Romel Regalado Bagares

A novel coronavirus

On December 30 last year, Dr. Ai Fen, Director of medical emergency at Wuhan Central hospital in Hubei province, received the lab results of a patient with flu-like symptoms that had proved to be resistant to prescribed treatment.

The lab results turned up a dreaded note: “Sars coronavirus,” according to an interview she gave with the Chinese magazine, Renwu, or “People,” translated into English by the British newspaper The Guardian and published on March 11.

It made her break into a sweat. After making sure she read the note correctly, she snapped a photo of the report using her smartphone and sent it to a colleague at another hospital in the city of around 11 million. By day’s end, that photo  would circulate in chat groups, and reached another doctor at her  hospital, Dr. Li Wenliang. It was the latter who would shortly blow the lid on the true nature of the virus.

Evidence suppressed?

 But Chinese authorities, instead of immediately warning the public about it, censured Dr. Ai, she said in her Renwu interview. Her superiors even instructed her to tell staff not to wear protective gear when treating patients, which she disobeyed, for the sake of her colleagues.

The authorities also allegedly caused the arrest of Dr. Li, forcing him to sign a declaration that he will stop talking publicly about the virus. Dr. Li, after treating many of the patients himself, would later on die of the disease now known as “Coronavirus 2019” (COVID-19), which arose from the virus identified as “SARS-CoV-2,” a new coronavirus suspected but not proven to have come from bats or pangolins.

His subsequent death would spark a rare and massive online outburst of anger among Chinese citizens, who looked to him as a martyr.

The South China Morning Post also reported on March 13  that another doctor, Zhang Jixian, of the  Hubei Provincial Hospital of Integrated Chinese and Western Medicine, had reported to China’s health authorities at an even earlier date – on December 27 last year – that the flu-like disease that had stricken a rising number of patients was caused by a new coronavirus.

However, by January 2, 41 patients admitted into hospitals in Wuhan “had been identified  as having laboratory-confirmed 2019-nCoV infection,”according to a crucial study made by Chinese medical scientists and published by The Lancet, a noted British medical journal, on January 24.

More importantly, only 27 of the patients (or 66 percent of the patient population in the study) had links to the Huanan seafood market, the suspected “ground zero” of the outbreak. The rest of the patients, because they had no connections to the market, indicated human to human transmission. This latter set included one of the earliest cases, from December 1 last year.

Interestingly, this study was funded by a cluster of high-level Chinese national institutions – the Ministry of Science and Technology, Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences, National Natural Science Foundation of China, and Beijing Municipal Science and Technology Commission.

This makes the study official, being sanctioned by the highest echelons of China’s central government. Yet, despite this officially-sanctioned research results, on January 19, in their very first public statement to the World Health Organization (WHO), Chinese officials insisted it was a “preventable and controllable” animal-to-human disease, saying available evidence only connected it to the seafood market in Wuhan, where the new virus emerged.

The officials would finally confirm human to human transmission only two days later, as  the number of sick residents coming to hospital emergency rooms in the city reached 1,523  a day – or three times the normal rate. This was already 19 days – or nearly three weeks – after The Lancet study’s confirmation of a novel coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan.

And now, nearly three months later, the world as we know it is gone; global supply chains – many of them dependent on China-based factories – grind to a halt, putting in deep doubt the seamless globalization they had underwritten all these years; airline and tourism  industries worldwide falter; stock markets crash; universities abruptly shift classes online; offices adopt virtual or work from home arrangements; and entire cities or nations go on lockdown for extended periods, as governments try to “flatten the curve” on the deadly virus, which has already spread to more than 168 countries and regions around the world, with 378,679 cases and 16, 508 deaths as of March 24, according to the Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science Engineering.

Too, it has made the closure of borders a necessity, even in the Eurozone, a region premised on the free movement of goods and peoples.  A global recession – defined as economic growth rate below 2.5 percent  from the normal range of 3.5 to 4 percent – has arrived, according to the  Financial Times on March 15.

COVID-19 and the Law of State Responsibility

The question is: assuming the allegations of an official coverup are true, is the Chinese government liable in some way for it under international law?

Under the law of state responsibility, China has certain international obligations it should have dutifully observed in dealing with the COVID-19 disease. The law of state responsibility defines the  conditions and consequences of wrongful conduct of states under international law.

The determination of state responsibility involves two correlated grids: one, primary rules, which prescribe a certain conduct, depending on the legal regime in question; and two, secondary rules, which define the conditions under which an act is wrongful in international law and spells out the consequences of such internationally wrongful act.

Secondary rules are expressed in the 2001 Draft Articles on the Responsibility of States for Wrongful Acts (ARSIWA), a landmark document developed by the International Law Commission to codify customary norms of state responsibility, as well as in relevant case law, and general principles of law.

Generally, state responsibility is raised whenever a state commits an internationally unlawful act  or  conduct that breaches its international obligations regardless of whether an injured state at all seeks reparations for the damage it suffered as a result of such an  internationally unlawful act.

This is known as the “objective interpretation of state responsibility”, which protects the integrity and stability of the international legal order. Thus, an international wrong done by a state does not become a right simply because no one complained against it.

The IHR (2005)  as the applicable primary rule

China’s alleged suppression of information on COVID-19 is a violation of the 2005 International Health Regulations (IHR)  established under the auspices of the World Health Assembly, the decision-making body of the World Health Agency (WHO), to deal with diseases of an international nature.

The IHR (2005) is an interesting species of international law, because it is a set of regulations established by an international organization. Nevertheless, the parties to it are states, and the WHO treats it as a treaty binding on member-states.

The purpose of the IHR (2005) is “to prevent, protect against, control and provide a public health response to the international spread of disease in ways that are commensurate with and restricted to public health risks, and which avoid unnecessary interference with international traffic and trade.”

China, when it became a party to the treaty in the same year, declared that it “applies to the entire territory of the People’s Republic of China, including the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, the Macau Special Administrative Region and the Taiwan Province.”

First drafted in 1969, it  covered six “quarantinable” diseases, but was later amended in 1973 and 1981 to cover only three infectious diseases – cholera, plague, and yellow fever – thus reflecting the WHO’s success in fighting infectious diseases. However, when the first coronavirus epidemic – the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome ( SARS)  – broke out in 2003 in China, the IHR could not be invoked for that reason.

At that time, China’s response to the outbreak in Guangdong province as early as November 2002  left many countries reeling from its after effects, as Chinese officials shunned transparency and cooperation, thus contributing to global spread of the coronavirus.

On May 23,  2005, the IHR  was again amended to now apply in general to any “illness medical condition, irrespective of origin or source, that presents or could present significant harm to humans.” It also now covers any “public health emergency of international concern.” Such public emergency is now defined as “an extraordinary event which is determined, as provided in these Regulations:  (i) to constitute a public health risk to other States through the international spread of disease and  (ii) to potentially require a coordinated international response.”

The new regulations took effect on June 15, 2007.

It is undeniable that COVID-19 is one such public health emergency of international concern, as it has been declared a pandemic – or “the worldwide spread of a new disease”  – by the WHO on March 11, the very first to be called by the international body of a coronavirus.  So far, it has wrought untold havoc on the world economy, aside from already affecting the right to life and the right to health of nearly four hundred thousand people globally. The  IHR (2005) comprises the primary rules of state responsibility that prescribe conduct – international obligations– on a pandemic like the COVID-19 disease.

China’s Duty to Notify under the IHR (2005)

A WHO briefer explains that upon the first reports  of a potential public health emergency of international concern, within its territory,  a state is  required to assess  within 48 hours by applying a specific algorithm contained in Annex II of the IHR(2005), called the decision instrument. It is to use four decision criteria for the purpose –  (1) the seriousness of the event’s public health impact; (2) the unusual or unexpected nature of the event; (3) the risk of international disease spread; and (4) or the risk that travel or trade restrictions will be imposed by other countries.

“In essence, the events which must be assessed are those that may fulfil one or more of the four decision instrument criteria, and the events which must be notified are those that meet at least any two of the criteria therein,” according to a WHO briefer.

The earliest report appears to have been made on December 27 last year by Dr. Shang,  followed three days later by Dr. Ai and Dr. Li.  So, on the basis of the IHR (2005) protocol, China had 48 hours to assess whether this “unusual event” is of the nature of an public health emergency of an international concern.

Then, under Arts. 6 and 7 of IHR (2005), China had the duty to inform the WHO within 24 hours of determining the nature of the virus, using a prescribed checklist, as well as any measure it has deployed to deal with its outbreak.

The Smoking Gun?

The critical date here appears to be January 2 , when 41 patients “had been identified  as having laboratory-confirmed 2019-nCoV infection,” in the words of the Lancet study. This  Lancet study could be  the proverbial “smoking gun” in any international litigation.

And it is baffling that the study – with the names of a stellar cast of Chinese medical scientists appended to it – was at all allowed to be published in an independent and reputable foreign medical journal by the Chinese government.

Given the official nature of this research study, this amounts to a direct admission by the Chinese government that they knew early on about the nature of the contagion in Wuhan.  And within 24 hours of this determination, China, through its designated National IHR Focal Point, should have already alerted the designated IHR Contact Point.

After such notification, China also had the duty to communicate to the WHO “timely, accurate and sufficiently detailed public health information available.” This includes “case definitions, laboratory results, source and type of the risk, number of cases and deaths, conditions affecting the spread of the disease and the health measures employed.” China was also expected to report the challenges posed by the virus, and any assistance it may need to respond to the potential public health emergency of international concern.

As the available facts show, Chinese authorities allegedly quarantined information and any public discussion about the COVID-19 for nearly three weeks, when early containment to prevent its spread beyond Chinese borders was supposed to be the order of the day.

They also reportedly refused offers of assistance from the WHO and from the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention   (CDC) in those early stages of the outbreak.  A US CDC report would later say that  the “sequences from U.S. patients are similar to the one that China initially posted, suggesting a likely single, recent emergence of this virus from an animal reservoir.”

Worse, China’s provincial officials even allegedly prosecuted whistleblowers.

In the Corfu Channel Case (1949), the International Court of Justice (ICJ) held that no state may “knowingly allow its territory to be used for acts contrary to the rights of other States.” Such a general principle of law means that China is duty-bound to ensure that individuals do not cause harm to the rights of other states. Moreover, the acts of persons exercising public authority are attributable to the state. This is consistent with the principle of the unity of the state, where the conduct of any of its organs, whether in the exercise of legislative, executive, or judicial functions, are considered its own acts in international law.

Thus, ultimately, China  is responsible for the decisions taken by its public officials to keep under wraps crucial information on the virus for nearly three weeks when, under the IHR (2005), it had the duty to inform the world of the public health emergency within 24 hours of assessing its dangers.

That long delay may have caused many countries  the only window of opportunity they had  to prevent the contagion from spreading worldwide.

The Guardian reported on  March 11 about scientific simulations showing that  if the interventions could have been brought in a week earlier, 66 percent fewer people would have been infected, and if the same interventions could have been implemented three weeks earlier, it would have reduced the cases by 95 percent.

Breaches and Reparations

 What are the remedies available under international law for the injury suffered by other states as a result of China’s alleged mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic?

China may be liable to pay reparations to injured states over its failure to promptly notify the world of the outbreak of the SARS-CoV-2 virus as required by the WHO’s International Health Regulations (2005).

Whenever a State commits an internationally unlawful conduct, it must pay reparations to the injured parties for the damage they suffered . It is a principle of international law that the breach of an agreement involves an obligation to make reparation in an adequate form,” as the landmark Chorzow Factory Case (1927) would put it.

Reparation, per Chorzow,  “must, as far as possible, wipe-out all the consequences of the illegal act and re-establish the situation which would, in all probability, have existed if that act had not been committed.”

If restitution is no longer possible, “payment of a sum corresponding to the value which a restitution in kind would bear” will suffice, along with an  award of damages for loss sustained which would not be covered by restitution in kind or payment in place of it.”

According to the 2001 LaGrand Case, an assessment of damages may also come with an award of satisfaction, or a formal apology and assurance from the offending state that its unlawful conduct will not be repeated.

Both the apology and the pledge of non-repetition are important, because if that same state once again violates the same obligations in the future, these may be taken in evidence in another proceeding for reparations for purposes of ascertaining punitive damages, the repetition being a doubly flagrant and morally reprehensible violation of its international obligations.

Causal link requirement

 As the obligations in question involve a positive duty that must be discharged to prevent the spread of an infectious disease or a public health emergency of international concern, reparations may involve a determination by an international tribunal of a causal link between the alleged breach of an international obligation and the damage suffered by the injured States.

One applicable model of causation is the “sufficiently direct and certain causal nexus test“  established by the International Court of Justice in the Bosnian Genocide Case (2007). This means that  an injured state must establish from the case as a whole and with a sufficient degree of certainty that the pandemic would have been averted had China complied with its treaty obligations under IHR (2005).

Or, it may be a simple test of an obligation of conduct as in Corfu Channel, where the failure to discharge a positive duty to notify under customary international law was enough to assess damages against the offending state, Albania, which failure was deemed a form of negligence. In fact, in the Rainbow Warrior Arbitration (1986), it was held that mere violation of an obligation, “irrespective of material damage, can cause moral or legal damage.”

Indeed, it may be argued that the duty to notify codified in the IHR (2005) is not only a treaty norm but also a rule that, since the treaty was established in 1969, has crystallized as well as a norm of customary international law considered binding on all states, given the scale and effects of the dangers it addresses.

Moreover, the unprecedented spread of the deadly disease may yet give rise to a recognition that the failure to notify the world on public health emergencies of international concern now involves a fundamental and common interest of  the international community of nations.

In such a case, even an uninjured State may bring a claim against China on behalf of the international community, under Art. 48 (1)(b) of the Draft Articles on the Responsibility of States for  Internationally Wrongful Acts.  In any case, the liability for damages assessable against China for its alleged breach of international obligations would almost certainly involve staggering amounts.

Dispute settlement under the IHR (2005)

 Art. 56 of the IHR(2005) provides member states with a graduated procedure for settling any dispute on the interpretation or application of the regulations.

Firstly, the provision requires parties to a dispute to settle it peacefully according to an agreed mechanism, including good offices, mediation, or conciliation.  Secondly, if it fails, they may then refer it to the Director General, “who shall make every effort to settle it.”

However, the current WHO Director General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, an Ethiopian, may not be the best person to settle it, having been repeatedly criticized by various sectors for his lavish praise of China’s response to the Wuhan outbreak.

Or a member state party may also declare in writing to the Director General that it accepts compulsory arbitration to settle such dispute. In such case, the arbitration will be conducted  under the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s  Optional Rules for Arbitrating Disputes between Two States applicable at the time a request for arbitration is made.

Any award made pursuant to the arbitration will be binding and final on the parties. Member states are also allowed to agree to settle their disputes using other dispute settlement mechanisms. However, if the dispute is between a member state and the WHO itself, it will be submitted to the Health Assembly.

China has not made any reservation on, or rejection of, any provision of the IHR (2005). However, it has not submitted a written declaration accepting  compulsory arbitration.

Shifting the narrative?

But already, China is beginning to shift the narrative away from its alleged responsibility over the pandemic.

In early March, the Xinhua News Agency, a government mouthpiece, published an editorial claiming that “the world should thank China” for  the huge sacrifices and extreme measures it had undertaken to fight the new coronavirus,  which supposedly bought the rest of the world time, Asian Nikkei reported on March 11.

The Guardian also reported on March 13  that the Chinese Foreign Ministry now accuses the United States Army of having actually brought the virus to Wuhan, and Chinese diplomats and state media are echoing the allegation.

Also, the Chinese government just published a book, A Great Power’s Battle Against Epidemic, which praises Chinese Premier Xi Jinping’s “strategic foresight and outstanding leadership ability” in fighting the outbreak in Hubei province, according to the Asian Nikkei.

But the book was quickly withdrawn from circulation when Hubei residents protested that it was inappropriate to distribute the book when the battle against the virus not yet over.

President Donald Trump would not be outdone, saying China should be held to account for the “Chinese virus.”

What’s interesting is that the Chinese government is on a diplomatic offensive, sending medical teams and tons and tons of crucial medical supplies to Italy, Serbia, Liberia, and the Philippines.

On March 21, Time magazine quotes Czech Interior Minister Jan Hamacek as saying that China  is “the only country capable of supplying Europe with such amounts.” The magazine also quotes a noted China expert Julian Ku, professor of international law at Hofstra University in New York  as saying that the Chinese government hopes to leverage its experience in bringing the new coronavirus under  control.

“The Chinese government’s failures … will be less harshly viewed in light of the failures of other governments to respond effectively as well,” he told Time.

 WHO: the weakest link?

Even the WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus had praised the Chinese efforts to combat the pandemic, and even called on countries to avoid travel bans to and from China.

“We reiterate our call to all countries not to impose restrictions that unnecessarily interfere with international travel and trade, Tedros said in an official WHO statement on  February 4. “Such restrictions can have the effect of increasing fear and stigma, with little public health benefit.”

Tedros’s praise for the Chinese response to the virus baffled some experts, according to  a Washington Post report on February 8.  These experts think that the international body’s positive appraisal of the Chinese handling of COVID-19 early on may have given other nations a false sense of security that the disease has not spiraled out of control.

“We were deceived,”  Lawrence Gostin, a professor of global health law at Georgetown University who also provides technical assistance to the WHO  told the Washington Post. “Myself and other public health experts, based on what the World Health Organization and China were saying, reassured the public that this was not serious, that we could bring this under control.”

Others are more caustic in their criticism.

On March 17, The Hill, a  conservative American online magazine, published an opinion piece by Bradly A. Thayer, a professor of political science at the University of Texas and co-author of the book How China Sees the World: Han-Centrism and the Balance of Power in International Politics, and Lianchao Han, vice president of Citizen Power Initiatives for China. The two said Tedros and China’s XI Jinping “should be held accountable for recklessly managing this deadly pandemic.”

They accused Tedros of helping China “play down the severity, prevalence and scope of the COVID-19 outbreak” after meeting Xi on January 28 in Beijing.

They also noted China’s connections to the WHO Director General’s  country of origin Ethiopia, which, they say, is now called East Africa’s “Little China” with heavy Chinese investments. Indeed, it has become “China’s bridgehead to influence Africa and a key to China’s Belt and Road initiative there.”

They also provided little known facts about Tedros, who, they say,  was elected to his position with the WHO in 2017 “despite the fact that he was not trained as a medical doctor and had no global health management experience.” Instead,  he was  a former minister of health and minister of foreign affairs for Ethiopia before going to the WHO, where one of his first official acts was to propose to appoint then-Zimbabwe dictator Robert Mugabe as a WHO goodwill ambassador.

If so, we may see for the first time a suit for “complicity” of the WHO, an international organization  – an area in international law that is admittedly still in development.

Capable of repetition, yet evading review…”

 In November 2017, an article in the Smithsonian Magazine asked whether China is going to be ground zero for a future pandemic. The author, Melinda Liu, argued that the country “is uniquely positioned to create a novel flu virus that kills people.” Why so?

She explained:

“On Chinese farms, people, poultry and other livestock often live in close proximity. Pigs can be infected by both bird flu and human flu viruses, becoming potent ‘mixing vessels’  that allow genetic material from each to combine and possibly form new and deadly strains. The public’s taste for freshly killed meat, and the conditions at live markets, create ample opportunity for humans to come in contact with these new mutations.”

In addition, in a country of one billion people, only two percent receive flu shots annually, she wrote, underlining a grave lack of  community immunity for flu.

There’s also the problem of the repressive political system, in the country, shown in the Chinese response to SARS outbreak, in which “Chinese apparatchiks initially tried to cover up the epidemic, creating a worldwide scandal.”

She did note an improvement in China’s handling of the  H5N1 bird flu outbreak in 2013. Alas, the improvement would not last long.

Only three years later, Liu’s prediction would come true – a new pandemic from China has gripped the world, and it is with such virulence  that, in the United States alone,  it could kill as many as 1.7 million people, according to a US CDC worst case scenario estimate.

If anything,  China’s immediate responses to the SARS and COVID-19 pandemics seem to underline that public health emergencies of international concern and authoritarian systems lacking in transparency and political freedoms make for a dangerous mix.

A formal legal proceeding before an international tribunal, where evidence for or against China’s alleged responsibility for the pandemic are heard by impartial judges, may be the best way to establish the truth about COVID-19, and to stop another pandemic from ravaging the world.

Yet it remains a big question whether China would allow itself to be dragged into yet another contentious international arbitration.

Injured states may take the first step of asking the good offices of UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, to find a common solution with China for the damage they suffered as a consequence of the latter’s failure to promptly notify the world about the true nature of contagion that emerged in Wuhan late last year.

This first appeared as a two-part special report for abs-cbn online on March 24, 2020, and March 25, 2020, respectively.  Click here for the first part, and here, for the second part.

A shorter version also appeared in the Philippine Daily Inquirer as an opinion piece on March 22, 2020.

 

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Filed under China, International Law, State Responsibility, Uncategorized

Commentary: Indonesia’s New Year’s message to China over Natunas dispute: A game changer?

By Romel Regalado Bagares

A statement issued on  New Year’s Day by the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs against alleged Chinese encroachments over the Indonesian Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the Natunas may prove to be a diplomatic and legal game changer in the increasingly volatile South China Sea.

For the very first time, a third party Association of Southeast Asian Nation (ASEAN) member- state invoked the landmark 2016 arbitral ruling in the South China Sea case filed by the Philippines three years earlier against Chinese expansionist moves in the region.

Indonesia’s broadside came following alleged incursions by Chinese coastguard vessels in the Natuna Sea, which lie nearly 1,100 kilometers south of the Spratlys in the South China Sea.  It features an archipelago of 271 islands and resource-rich waters.

China claims the Natunas is subject to its jurisdiction  under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea  (UNCLOS) as “relevant” waters that had been visited by Chinese fishermen since time immemorial.

A blunt rebuff

The Indonesian MFA however said the Chinese claim is without any legal basis under the UNCLOS, adding that its claims of historic rights have all been repudiated by the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s 2016 ruling.

In addition, Indonesia bluntly rejected any suggestion of bilateral talks with China to delimit what the latter says are overlapping maritime jurisdictions, as there are none to speak of.  .

“Based on UNCLOS 1982, Indonesia does not have overlapping claims with the PRC [People’s Republic of China] so that it is not relevant to have any dialogue on maritime boundary delimitation,” the four-paragraph Indonesian statement said in part, according to a rough translation of the original Bahasa.

Too, under UNCLOS rules, recognition by Indonesia of any maritime overlap forecloses any resort  to the landmark treaty’s compulsory dispute mechanisms successfully used by the Philippines to bring China to arbitration, despite the latter’s fierce objections.

Thus,  the Indonesian statement may also be  sending China a subtle signal that any further unwelcome acts in the Natunas  may force Indonesia’s hand to steer for a direction Beijing would not want to take itself – yet another arbitration case where it will have little control of the outcome.

China appears to expand the exception outlined by PCA to the UNCLOS regime that allows traditional  fishing in territorial waters by competing claimants (as it so held on the question of Scarborough Shoal claimed by both the Philippines and China).

But notably, the Arbitral Court stopped short of saying traditional – or subsistence – fishing may also apply to the EEZ, a ruling that comports with established international norm on the question.

What UNCLOS does allow in the EEZ is fishing for the “surplus catch” by other states outside of the coastal state’s Total Allowable Catch (TAC), a scientific measure of that state’s fishing capacity, but only with the latter’s consent.

Ironically,  during the UNCLOS negotiations, China  itself had questioned the allotment of a surplus catch in the EEZ  for other states, saying that developing countries should be allowed to keep all fishery resources for itself,  as noted by the PCA in its judgment on the Philippine arbitral case against China.

In any case, Chinese poaching in the EEZs of its ASEAN neighbors can hardly be considered subsistence fishing. Instead,  it often involves what experts call China’s “Second Surging Sea Force” network of large fishing fleets working in tandem with Chinese navy and Coastguard vessels.

A loud chorus from the ASEAN trio

Jakarta’s rebuff of Beijing forms part of an increasingly loud chorus of opposition to China’s expansionist moves in the South China Sea, as it joins formal moves by two other major economies –  Malaysia and Vietnam – to set aside the Chinese Nine Dash Line-claim in favor of accepted international rules.

In November last year, a top Vietnamese diplomat announced that his country is now seriously considering to follow Manila’s earlier lead to bring China to arbitral court over  repeated Chinese intrusions in Vietnam’s Vanguard Bank, an oil-rich section of its EEZ.

Malaysia followed this up in late December by filing with the United Nations a claim for an Extended Continental Shelf (ECS). It made the filing under Article 76 of the  UNCLOS, which allows a coastal state to claim the outer limits of its continental shelf beyond the 200-mile limit, for an additional 150 miles, under certain geological conditions. It is a legal move that also eats  substantially into the Chinese Nine Dash Lines.

On January 3, or two days after the Indonesian MFA’s declarations,  Malaysia’s own Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement saying it does not fear Chinese reprisals over its ECS filing.

The three countries’  combined message should unsettle China, as it confirms Beijing’s failure to marshal support among the region’s biggest economic and political players – not counting the Philippines –  for its rejection of the PCA’s ruling striking its Nine Dash Line-claim.

Beijing, in utter disregard of the ruling, then embarked on a building spree – now largely completed – over maritime features declared by the PCA as part of the Philippines’ EEZ.

Indonesia, along with Vietnam, Malaysia, Japan, and Thailand, had each sent a diplomatic observer to the Permanent Court of Arbitration proceedings at the Hague where the Philippine arbitral case against China was heard.  With the exception of Thailand, all the countries have a running maritime dispute with China.

During the PCA hearings in the Philippine case, Vietnam had as well filed a brief supporting Manila’s case against China.

Ironically, with the election to office of President Rodrigo Duterte in June 2016, Manila has backpedaled on its stance towards China, opting to take a conciliatory route towards Beijing. Manila had filed the arbitral case under his predecessor, Benigno Aquino III’s administration.

Three years into his term, Mr. Duterte, in addition to his contradictory statements over the country’s arbitral case victory, has so far continued his policy of rapprochement towards China, despite it not sitting well with most of the  Filipino populace, not to mention, with his own military advisers.

ASEAN chairmanship change

New Year’s Day also triggered a change in leadership of the ASEAN under the regional grouping’s charter, with its chairmanship automatically vested for a one-year term with Vietnam, from Thailand’s in 2019.

Article 31 of the ASEAN Charter provides that “the Chairmanship of ASEAN shall rotate annually, based on the alphabetical order of the English names of Member States.”

Vietnamese  chairmanship of the regional grouping may also prove pivotal to current ASEAN efforts at crafting a binding Code of Conduct regulating the actions of rival claimants in the region.

This – and the ASEAN trio’s open defiance of China on the South China Sea question – may yet push Mr. Duterte to rethink his own options towards Chinese occupation of maritime features that, according to  the PCA, are part of the Philippines’ own EEZ.

 

This piece appeared in the Philippine Star’s online edition on  January 5, 2020.

 

 

 

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Filed under Bajo De Masinloc, China, International Law, ITLOS, Malaysia, Nine-Dash Line Claim, PCA, Scarborough Shoal, South China Sea, Uncategorized, UNCLOS

The Philippines’ Right to Self-Determination and the South China Sea Question

ONE WAY to frame the Philippine claim in regard to areas in the South China Sea is from the right to self-determination for its own people as to the use of natural resources that are rightfully theirs. As held in the East Timor case, such right is peremptory and invokes erga omnes omnium (universal) obligations. This is from the point of view of state responsibility reinforcing erga omnes partes (treaty) obligations.

Thus, under the law on state responsibility, states not party to the dispute in question have an obligation to respect the territorial integrity and sovereign rights of the Philippines; they are legally bound to refuse to recognize the Chinese Nine-Dash Line as lawful, and to refrain from recognizing or entering into any agreements with China for the unlawful exploitation of natural resources in the Philippine EEZ and the Continental Shelf.

There is also the positive duty on the part of all states to cooperate to put a stop to such unlawful acts. Even non-parties to the UNCLOS are bound by such an obligation, it being (jus cogens) peremptory in nature.

The Philippines’ entitlement to the fruits of such a right has already been confirmed and upheld by the landmark judgment of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the South China Sea Arbitration case.

 Lawyer Joel Butuyan, in his Philippine Daily Inquirer column and Justice Antonio Carpio in his public statements have already pointed to the possibility of suing third parties conniving with China in exploiting resources within Philippine EEZ and the Continental shelf within the UNCLOS regime. 

The law on state responsibility solidifies the Philippine claim against such a situation through the legal effects of the right to self-determination. This is general international law complementary to the Law of the Sea regime.

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Filed under China, International Law, ITLOS, Nine-Dash Line Claim, Scarborough Shoal, UNCLOS

The Philippines’ Nicaraguan moment

By Romel Regalado Bagares*

 

PCAAnd so the Philippines has just had its Nicaraguan moment as it clinched a unanimous decision in most of its 15 arbitral claims against Chinese “Nine-Dash Line” expansionism in the South China Sea.

The Permanent Court of Arbitration, in a landmark ruling released July 12 on the case In the Matter of the South China Sea Arbitration (it’s formal name, also referred to here as the Philippine Case), invalidated China’s claims over pretty much of the maritime areas in the region.

The Arbitral Court also clarified in favor of the Philippines the status of many features in the contested Spratly islands and Scarborough Shoal with both scientific and legal criteria, in relation to a resource-rich Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and Continental Shelf.

The win recalls an earlier and similar David versus Goliath seminal ruling by an international tribunal, the case filed by Nicaragua against the United States in 1984, which was decided by the International Court of Justice in 1986. Here, the United States was sued by Nicaragua before the World Court over the former’s promotion of Low Intensity Conflict and direct military action in its territory through the mining of its harbors. The ICJ ruled in Nicaragua’s favor against its giant legal opponent.

Key wins for the Philippines

For the most part, the PCA’s definitive clarifications agreed with the Philippine position; but where it did not, the country still came away the winner. Thus, the following important takeaways from the Arbitral Award:

  • Historic rights to living and non-living resources in the South China Sea are incompatible with the maritime entitlements provided in the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, insofar as these fall within the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of other States in the region. What is doubly significant is that the Arbitral Tribunal also found evidence that consistent with the language of the UNCLOS itself, the Chinese understanding and practice of historic rights as to the Nine-Dash Line does not pertain to historic title to land or maritime areas, which would amount to a claim of full sovereignty, but only to “historic rights short of title.” As the UNCLOS superseded any historic rights, or other sovereign rights or jurisdiction, in excess of the limits it imposes, the Nine-Dash Line claim cannot survive the treaty’s maritime regimes. In this way, the Arbitral Court also made short shrift of Chinese arguments that the issues brought before it by the Philippines were among those it had made reservations about as far as the application of the Annex VII compulsory dispute settlement mechanism of the UNCLOS is concerned. It bears stressing also that the Arbitral Court deals only with the application and interpretation of the provisions of the UNCLOS and is not competent to adjudicate issues of ownership of disputed islands.
  •  Mischief Reef (Panganiban Reef) and Second Thomas Shoal (our Ayungin Shoal where we have grounded the BRP Sierra Madre as our forlorn if rutted outpost) –these being low-tide elevations as we had argued– are part of the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone and Continental Shelf. China cannot prevent the Philippines from exercising its sovereign rights over waters and features found within its EEZ.
  • Mischief Reef being part of the Philippines’ EEZ and Continental Shelf, China has no business reclaiming it and building artificial islands over it. Moreover, no amount of construction by China can transform low-tide elevations or rocks into full-blown natural islands able to generate all the maritime entitlements under UNCLOS.
  • The other features in the Spratlys, namely Fiery Cross Reef, Johnson Reef, McKeenan Reef, and Gaven Reef (North) were held to be rocks unable to independently sustain human habitation or economic life and entitled only to a 12-nautical mile territorial sea. Meanwhile, Hughes Reef, Gaven Reef (South) and Subi Reef were held to be low-tide elevations not capable of appropriation by China. Thus, both sets of reefs do not and cannot generate any EEZ for China.
  • Scarborough (Panatag) Shoal is no more than a group of rocks jutting out of the water at high tide, able only to generate a 12-nautical mile territorial sea. However, the Arbitral Court said that the area is subject to traditional or artisanal fishing rights for fishermen from the Philippines, China (and Taiwan) and Vietnam. This is without prejudice to some future determination of who owns the Shoal, a question not within the competence of the Arbitral Court to decide. China violated these traditional fishing rights when it barred Filipino fishermen from the Shoal.
  • In a bit of a surprise (may be not, given the scientific side to it), the Arbitral Court ruled that none of the high-tide features in the Spratlys –including our Pag-asa (Thitu) island in the Kalayaan island group — can sustain human habituation or economic life on their own in their natural condition. The Taiwan-occupied Itu Aba itself, at one point considered a “game changer” in the proceedings and a contentious issue between Associate Justice Francis Jardeleza and Associate Justice Antonio Carpio – two members of the Philippine legal team – is technically a rock. Thus, none of the islands can generate anything beyond a 12-nautical mile territorial sea.
  • Following this, none of the features that mattered for the Philippines, whether low-tide elevations or high-tide formations, can generate maritime entitlements in favor of China or that would immediately require a delimitation of boundaries, which situation would be beyond the Arbitral Court’s jurisdiction. 
  • The Court rejected the Chinese position that the Spratlys is one archipelago generating as a whole its own territorial sea, contiguous zone, continental shelf and EEZ. This may prove to be an important factor if and when the question of who owns which island in the island chain is actually submitted to another international arbitration proceeding, this time, under principles of general international law. It bears noting that in its 2009 Baselines Law – seen by critics as the country’s waiver of its historic claims to title under the 1898 Treaty of Paris – the Philippines also treated the islands in the Spratlys under its control as belonging to a regime of islands under Art. 121 of the UNCLOS.
  • The Arbitral Court held that Chinese incursions in the Reed Bank area (Recto Bank for the Philippines, where oil exploration rights had been granted by the Philippine government) violate the Philippines’ sovereign rights over its Continental Shelf.
  • Under the UNCLOS and relevant treaties, there is an obligation on the part of states to protect the marine environment from degradation as well as to ensure safe marine navigation. The PCA found that the Chinese government tolerated and protected Chinese fishing vessels engaging in harmful harvesting activities of endangered species at Scarborough Shoal, Second Thomas Shoal and other features in the Spratly Islands. At various times, China was found to have also engaged in unsafe marine navigation vis-à-vis Philippine ships, thus violating relevant treaties to which it was a party stipulating best navigational practices. It also held that China has engaged in irreversibly destructive island-building activities at Cuarteron Reef, Fiery Cross Reef, Gaven Reef (North), Johnson Reef, Hughes Reef, Subi Reef and Mischief Reef. These acts and omissions violated China’s obligations under UNCLOS to protect the marine environment.

The Philippines’ Nicaraguan Moment

What the Nicaragua case (Military and Paramilitary Activities in and against Nicaragua (Nicaragua v. United States of America) had done for the international law on the use of force and the threat of force, the Philippine Case has just did for the Law of the Sea in many key areas. It established definitive rules on such areas as the legal status of historic rights in relation to the maritime entitlements under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, artificial and natural islands, low-tide elevations, responsibility for environmental damage, safety in marine navigation, and traditional fishing grounds as against the EEZ.

The Arbitral Award is yet the most comprehensive in scope since the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea began hearing procedures under a compulsory dispute settlement mechanism of ANNEX VII of the treaty, which took effect in 1994.
The five-member arbitral tribunal was convened in 2013, comprised of some of the world’s leading subject-matter authorities. Presided over by Judge Thomas A. Mensah of Ghana, a former President of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in Hamburg, Germany, it included three of the sitting judges on that court, namely Judge Jean-Pierre Cot (France), Judge Rüdiger Wolfrum (Germany) and Judge Stanislaw Pawlak (Poland), and Professor Alfred H. A. Soons, the former director of the Netherlands Institute for the Law of the Sea.

Uncanny parallels and ironies

The uncanny parallels and ironies in the two leading cases are a-plenty, although they concern by and large different areas of international law.

Not to be missed is the fact that Foley Hoag, the Philippines’ lead counsel in the South China Sea Arbitration is the same American law firm that won for Nicaragua respect in the world stage in its legal battle against the United States at the height of the Cold War. Both cases involved a behemoth in world politics – the United States in the 1986 case, China in the 2016 case.

The first case was filed over American intervention in a country that had turned communist and had repudiated ties with a former patron; the second case involved a communist state’s Post-Cold War ambitious and creeping occupation of a wide expanse of maritime territories encompassing some of the world’s busiest sea lanes.

In the Nicaragua Case, although the United States participated in the Jurisdictional Phase, it disengaged from the proceeding as it went to the Merits. In the South China Sea Arbitration, China formally stayed away from the proceedings from Day One, calling it illegal (but informally put forward its position to the Arbitral Court, including writing individually its members as well as publicizing a position paper it had commissioned to rebut the Philippine case).

In both cases, the Courts ruled on the most important questions that it had jurisdiction to hear the controversy brought before it, and decided in favor of the party that filed the suit. The United States in the first case and China in the second case would refuse to recognize the court judgment.

Yet in the Philippine Case, the United States vigorously supported its long-time ally and former colony in its campaign to invalidate China’s expansive Nine Dash-Line claims. This, even if it is not a party to the UNCLOS.

The Nicaragua Case would go on to be an important precedent for many other international law cases, reshaping fundamental ways in which the international community now understands the use of force and the threat of force as a means of settling international disputes under the UN Charter. Some scholars also credit the ICJ’s ruling in the de-escalation of many insurgency-related conflicts in the Latin American region.

In the South China Sea dispute, the US had called on China to follow a rules-based regime in settling the maritime conflict, when three decades earlier, it was not willing to abide by the binding nature of the ICJ’s judgment in the Nicaragua Case.

In fact, in the Philippine Case, the Permanent Court of Arbitration itself would cite the Nicaragua Case favorably in establishing why it had jurisdiction to hear the case, yes, even despite the non-participation in the proceedings of interested parties other than China.

On that question as well as on where and when a party is defaulting, the Arbitral Award is a masterful study of why international law cannot be allowed to be held hostage by the refusal of a state – a superpower at that in this case – to participate in a proceeding that concerns communal interests.

The independence of international tribunals is immensely important in the legitimacy of their rulings. The South China Sea Arbitration, as does the Nicaragua Case, shows that international law – contrary to what the Marxist theorists have put forward in the past, can be divorced from the politics of naked power.

It is likely that scholars and international tribunals would mine the Arbitral Award’s nearly 500-page carefully argued ruling on the Merits as a bible of sorts on the UNCLOS for many years to come.

The way forward?

The ICJ’s first female judge, Prof. Rosalyn Higgins, defines international law as a “normative process of authoritative decision-making.” By this definition, the Arbitral Award is already a big step towards legal stability in the South China Sea, removing once and for all the ambiguities that had attended the Chinese Nine-Dash Line claim since it was first advanced in the late 1940s.

By its very nature, the UNCLOS itself was designed to define in clear terms what maritime entitlements accrue to a coastal state, and the PCA, in the South China Sea Arbitration, has just made clear Chinese maritime claims cannot exceed what is available to it under the multilateral treaty.

As former University of the Philippines professor Harry Roque, now a legislator, argued, “the Court’s decision in this arbitral case will be its own enforcement mechanism.”

Roque, who taught international law for many years, said that a declaration by an impartial tribunal of the illegality of an act of a state in this case “has inescapable profound implications on what kind of values the international community wants to govern the way relations between and among states are conducted.”

Vociferous Chinese opposition to the Arbitral Award has evoked in Chinese constituencies memories of egregious past historical humiliations during colonial times. It has even kicked up the specter of a proxy war in which the real power behind the arbitration is the United States – the same country that refused the ICJ’s ruling in the Nicaragua Case thirty years ago. (The fact that the American law firm that gave a resounding defeat to the US in the Nicaragua Case is the same law firm that litigated the South China Sea Arbitration on behalf of the Philippines somehow blunts the charge).

Yet, on many levels, the Philippines in the South China Sea Arbitration may be better situated than Nicaragua was when it won the ICJ ruling in 1986.

For one, many countries other than the United States have, from the beginning, supported the Philippine cause, including those considered as “specially affected states” in international law.

Too, major European powers that supported the American veto against the ICJ’s Nicaragua Case ruling have expressed support for the Philippine arbitral case against China (as in the case of France and the United Kingdom). Indeed, many big players in the European Union have urged China to act according to international rules.

To a big extent, this is because other than territorial or maritime concerns, the South China Sea region straddles an area with enormous economic potential that goes beyond its actual geophysical reaches; it practically implicates the global economic order, as a third of the world’s shipping pass through the region.

There is also the fact that the Arbitral Award has far-reaching consequences – a “domino effect” – even if refused acceptance by China; this is because it without doubt also benefits other claimant states – again, members of the ASEAN – who reject Chinese claims that encroach on the maritime regimes they also claim for their own under the UNCLOS. The Arbitral body’s decisive demolition of the Nine-Dash Line claim has that effect.

Moreover, with a judgment embodying definitive rulings on what before were unclear problem areas as far as the features found in the South China Sea is concerned, the Arbitral Award presents a logical and legal basis for a proposed Code of Conduct among claimant countries belonging to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Perhaps, at no other time than this has it become opportune for the ASEAN to deal collectively with the elephant in the room that is China. While it is true that China is a major trading partner for many of them, the regional body cannot ignore any instability in the region sparked by the increasingly intransigent Chinese coming at a time when the association is moving towards greater economic integration.

And at least with respect to the Scarborough Shoal, there is room for compromise, or the development of a common code for traditional fishing, as pointed to by the PCA in its Arbitral Award. This may also present a door of opportunity to engage non-state actors – civil society groups from all sides of the dispute – who had been sidelined by the realist politics that had taken over the public discourse over the South China Sea maritime conflict. Far too often, state-to-state confrontations leave out the very people who are the first to be affected by such conflict.

Paradoxically, it also gives the Philippines greater constitutional flexibility. The 1987 Constitution expressly allocates the resources in the country’s EEZ for the exclusive use of its citizens. It is however silent where resources in traditional fishing grounds are concerned.

In any case, its 2009 Baselines Law had carved out a regime of islands out of Scarborough Shoal; it is a designation that does not necessarily conflict with the Arbitral Award stating that the Shoal is but an outcrop of rocks, or an island complex unable to sustain human life or economic activity, not to mention that the Philippine Supreme Court had also already rejected a constitutional challenge to the new Baselines Law.

Thus, President Rodrigo Roa Duterte may very well be correct in his basic stance of renewed diplomatic ties with China –but only if he negotiates from the unprecedented position of moral and legal strength the PCA’s Arbitral Award has just given to us.

* Mr. Bagares has a law degree from the University of the Philippines and serves as Executive Director of the Manila-based Center for International Law, an NGO dedicated to the promotion of the Rule of Law in the ASEAN region through binding international legal norms. He also teaches public international law at the Lyceum Philippines University College of Law.

 

This essay first appeared in a slightly different form at Verafiles.org.

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China’s territorial claims and the future of international law in Asia

By Romel Regalado Bagares

While the Chinese Communist Party wrestled with the challenges of political transition at home (including sex scandals, corruption and murder in the highest echelons of power),  the Chinese government has been picking quarrels with its much smaller neighbours over maritime territory.

Tensions over territorial disputes across the Asian region have led observers to wonder whether a China with immense economic needs and superpower ambitions is actually able to follow rules-based maritime regime under the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) vital to regional cooperation and stability.

Law of the Sea in the disputes

The UNCLOS establishes the reach of a coastal state’s 12- nautical mile territorial sea, 24-nautical mile contiguous zone, 200-nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone, 200-nautical mile Continental Shelf and its 150-nautical mile extension. It also provides rules for the exploitation of mineral and marine resources found in the sea and the seabed as well as for resolving conflicting maritime claims.

With Japan, China appears to have  recently come dangerously close to a shooting war in a  dispute over the five small uninhabited islands and three rocks of the Senkaku in the East China Sea.

Japan has accused a Chinese warship  of locking its fire-control radar on a Japanese destroyer in the high seas near the islands —definitely an escalation from previous confrontations  between Japan and another claimant-nation, Taiwan, where ships from both sides engaged one another in water cannon -duels.

Indeed, China, which treats Taiwan as an estranged province,  denies the Japanese charge.

Meanwhile, in the South China Sea, an area rich in oil, gas and fishing resources, China is locked in a long-standing dispute with several Southeast Asian nations over the Spratly group of islands, namely, Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Brunei and Indonesia.

China, a signatory to the UNCLOS,  justifies its territorial and maritime claims in the region through its Nine-Dash Line declaration.

Click here for the full essay as it appeared in the University of Exeter’s ThinkIR Blog.

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Filed under Bajo De Masinloc, China, International Law, ITLOS, Nine-Dash Line Claim, Scarborough Shoal, UNCLOS, US Pivot

Taken for a ride, yet again

by Romel Regalado Bagares

A little more than a week ago, local and international news agencies were abuzz with reports about US Defense Secretary Leo Panetta’s announcement of a new “pivot” policy – a shift in American defense posture – one that would mean the redeployment of  60 percent of naval assets to the Asia-Pacific region by the year 2020.

Then as if on cue, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, flew to Manila a few days after Panetta’s announcement for talks with his Philippine military counterparts.

At a press briefing in Manila, Dempsey said the shift would feature “three “‘mores” in US naval operations in the region —more attention, more engagement and more quality.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto Del Rosario, reacting to Dempsey’s pronouncements, happily affirmed that the new American defense policy environment would mean Filipinos are to expect more port calls in the Philippines of American navy ships.

As Mr. Panetta was winding up his Asian trip,  President Benigno Aquino III met with President Obama  at the White House and the two leaders would subsequently announce greater cooperation in various areas, notably in common security concerns in the West Philippine Sea.

In addition, Obama promised increased military assistance to help the Philippines build a “credible minimum defense,” including a US$ 30 million grant this year – which is nearly double what it gave its former colony since the latter terminated the presence of US bases at Clark and Subic in 1991 – and a second decommissioned coastguard cutter for the Philippine Navy.

Despite loud denials from the Americans, the “pivot” is seen as an answer to the growing ambitions of China in the region, which threatens US access to international sea lanes crucial to its long-term economic and military interests.

Unprecedented tension between China and the Philippines over Scarborough Shoal in May this year seemed to have provided a perfect excuse for the US to reassert its presence in the region.

Indeed, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, testifying before the US Congress, warned against a  China increasingly asserting its dominance in the South China Sea with no qualms about violating the maritime jurisdictions of its neighbors in its quest for minerals and other raw materials its expanded economy needs.

No doubt, the Philippines occupies a strategic place in this major shift in US global defense posture.  Already, the country has proven to be an indispensable element in its global war against terror, with many parts of its archipelago providing  excellent training grounds for its newly-organized highly mobile, quick deployment units under a controversial  Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA).

Since May, a slew of US navy ships have called port in the Philippines, and following President Aquino’s US trip, more are expected to arrive, along with more US troops who will be fielded to the country on a rotation basis, purportedly for training and joint exercises with their Filipino counterparts.

We’ve been dubbed, since the Bush years, as a “major non-NATO ally” and three years ago –in the words of President Obama – as the “coordinator” for the US in the ASEAN region.

But do the Americans match their sweet words to the Philippines with equal deeds to help us develop “credible minimum defense”?

At first glance, it does seem like it: the Philippines is supposedly now the largest benefactor of the Pentagon’s Foreign Military Financing budget, receiving $11 million in 2005, $12 million in 2006,  $13 million in 2007 and $30 million this year.

However, we’re not even on the list of the top ten beneficiaries of US defense assistance three years after 9/11, according to data from the US Center for Public Integrity:  (figures have been rounded-off): Israel (US$9 billion), Egypt (US$6 billion), Pakistan (US$4.6 billion), Jordan (US$2.6 billion), Afghanistan (US$2.6 billion), Colombia (US$2 billion), Turkey (US$1.3 billion), Peru (US$446 million), Bolivia (US$320.6 million) and Poland (US$ 313 million).

The Asian country nearest to us who is on the list is Pakistan. Compared to what Pakistan is getting from the US, our share of foreign military financing is peanuts.

Over the last few years, the US has given more than $ 7 billion to Pakistan in direct assistance – that is, in funds to purchase weapons, supplies and equipment, purportedly to help it fight the Taliban. With all that money, it is a wonder how Osama Bin Laden was able to elude Pakistani intelligence, as he was able to live a comfortable existence in a walled off mansion in Abbottabad for many years right under their noses.

Compare that to American military aid to the Philippines, which comes in the form of financing; that is, no money actually reaches Philippine coffers. Funds are directly paid to American firms contracted by the US government to supply mostly refurbished equipment to the Philippine military, like Vietnam-war era helicopters, trucks and patrol boats. Recently, the US has agreed to hand down to us two decommissioned Coastguard cutter but stripped of most of its armaments. The first delivery, which the Philippine Navy renamed BRP Gregorio Del Pilar, was the same vessel that chanced  upon Chinese fishing vessels poaching mostly endangered marine species at Panatag Shoal.

Philippine Navy top brass, on the eve of President Aquino’s US visit, pleaded with US authorities to deliver to us the second Coastguard cutter without removing its armaments.  But the plea from a major non-NATO ally and coordinator for the ASEAN fell on their deaf ears, even if it only concerns two 40-year old ships that have already seen better days.

So, what credible minimum defense capability for the Philippines is the United States talking about? We’ve gotten a raw deal before and we’re getting more of the same treatment from the Americans, who obviously want to keep us in relationship of dependency so that we will always be at their beck and call.

It is no wonder that despite years of American military aid to the Philippines, our armed forces remains the most poorly-equipped in the Asian region. Barya-barya lang at mga pinaglumaan na ang bigay nila sa atin. After all these years, we’re still being treated by the US as its toady and not as its equal.

On the same week Mr. Panetta announced a “pivot” in US defense policy, CNN broke the news that the US government
has decided to cut aid to a Pakistani version of “Sesame Street” because of charges of corruption. The price tag: US$ 20 million.

The Americans like us very much because they get so much from us for so little in return.

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