The West Philippine Sea Proved Noynoy Aquino Was Stubborn as Hell
“Malinaw ang pahiwatig natin ngayon sa buong mundo: Ang sa Pilipinas ay sa Pilipinas. Kapag tumapak ka sa Recto Bank, para ka na ring tumapak sa Recto Avenue,” President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III said during his 2011 State of the Nation Address.
This was from a time when China had been encroaching on Philippine EEZ and driving away Filipino exploration vessels that wanted to explore the oil-rich Recto Bank for resrouces. What was clear from that point was China’s expansion into the West Philippine Sea was already very apparent, even before the 2012 Scarborough Shoal Standoff, or when that part of the ocean was even called West Philippine Sea.
It doesn’t matter what you’ve heard about the West Philippine Sea lately, or how the Aquino administration allegedly allowed China to militarize the reefs therein. One thing certain about it: It was Aquino who took on the issue and nationalized it. He brought it to the attention of common Filipinos—that this portion of the sea was ours, according to the Constitution and international law.
For a very long time, no Southeast Asian leader wanted to take China head-on on such a sensitive issue. Prior to the 2012 Scarborough Shoal Standoff, the last time the Philippines butted heads with China at sea was in 1996 when a Philippine gunboat fought a 90-minute battle with Chinese militia vessels at Mischief Reef. The Philippines had been more careful toward China and its maritime claims since that incident.
Former President Gloria Arroyo was more open to concessions on the West Philippine Sea, even allowing Vietnam and China to participate in a joint exploration for resources within Philippine waters.
But when Aquino became President, he stood on the precipice of a newly emerging world order: Of China’s rising power, and of Western powers unsure of how to accommodate that rise. It was a time when China was finally ready to challenge Western influence within its backyard, and it used Scarborough Shoal—a property of America’s oldest ally in the Pacific—as its poking stick.
It was only right for the Philippines to enforce international law when it sent the BRP Gregorio Del Pilar to the shoal to send away Chinese vessels. Unfortunately, that incident led to the 2012 Scarborough Shoal Standoff between China and the Philippines, which also became the catalyst for succeeding incidents in the West Philippine Sea.
That incident proved very important: It tested the U.S. response to Chinese expansion in the Pacific, and it gave insight to just how far the Americans were committed to coming to the aid of its Southeast Asian ally. Unfortunately for the Philippines, the U.S. response was severely lacking. China noticed that, too.
China might have found the U.S. response to the Scarborough Standoff as not forceful enough as the Philippines could have hoped, and probably took that as a sign that it can proceed without much opposition from its most powerful adversary.
In fact, that year, the U.S. requested the Philippines not to bring up the issue of its obligations in the Mutual Defense Treaty when tackling issues surrounding the Scarborough Shoal. Many were disappointed when America told the Philippines that obligations in the treaty would not be triggered by foreign incursions in disputed waters.
But that’s where Aquino’s mettle proved its worth. Despite the lack of support from the U.S., the Philippines still pursued China and took her to court in 2013, months after the Scarborough Shoal Standoff. That surprised China, the U.S., and many observers of geopolitics.
China even tried to persuade the Philippines to drop the case, because according to Chinese customs, being sued or taken to court is a very shameful experience. But Aquino had already set his mind on the matter: The Philippines was suing China, take it or leave it. What a very stubborn president.
Never mind that China was the Philippines’ second-largest trading partner, or that thousands of Filipinos are living in China as overseas workers.
Aquino did not drop the case. Instead, he renamed the South China Sea “West Philippine Sea.” Or at least just the parts of it that the Philippines was claiming.
In an interview with Rappler, Aquino bared he was a little perturbed, though he did not show it at the height of the tensions.
“I won’t say I wasn’t bothered, I wasn’t apprehensive about some of the issues that we had to face. Going against China, how will China treat us if we dare?”
Yet he dared.
China showed the Philippines what it can do. Months after the Philippines filed a case at the Permanent Court of Arbitration, China retaliated by occupying and militarizing five reefs within the Philippine EEZ.
What exactly made Aquino so bold was not military hardware, economic might, or the commitment of support from the country’s allies. He only relied on international law and its unassailable fairness. He knew that UNCLOS would be the great equalizer between China and the Philippines.
But he also believed Filipinos would support it.
“But being confident that the people are there, that if you present the facts to them, they will see how reasonable our position, how logical, how correct. We can count on their support,” Aquino told Rappler.
Noynoy Aquino was far from being a perfect president. He had many flaws and shortcomings. But his decisiveness on the West Philippine Sea cannot be dismissed for nothing.
His boldness and stubbornness gained for the Philippines a very powerful leverage: the 2016 ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in favor of the Philippines.
It is not just a piece of paper, but clearly a legacy of the Aquino administration: A very powerful instrument of peace that can be used to assert Filipinos’ rights in the West Philippine Sea without declaring war.