MANILA— The Philippines reaffirmed on Tuesday that it had the legal high ground over China in a long-running maritime row, marking the anniversary of an arbitration ruling that concluded Beijing’s claim to almost the entire South China Sea was groundless.
Following a heated standoff with China, the Philippines took the bold step in 2013 of lodging a case with the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague seeking clarification of its sovereign entitlements under international law.
The panel’s 2016 interpretation of maritime boundaries went in Manila’s favor and dealt a major blow to Beijing, which refuses to recognize the outcome and maintains that its claim, based on its own historical maps, remains valid.
Philippine foreign minister, Enrique Manalo on Tuesday reiterated that the award was final and China’s claims baseless.
“These findings are no longer within the reach of denial and rebuttal, and are conclusive as they are indisputable,” he said in a statement.
“We firmly reject attempts to undermine it… even erase it from law, history and our collective memories.”
A poll last month by the Stratbase Institute showed about 90% of Filipinos want the government to assert the country’s maritime claims and increase its defense capability.
But the Philippines has been unable to enforce the ruling and has since filed hundreds of protests over what it calls encroachment and harassment by China’s coast guard and its vast fishing fleet.
New President Ferdinand Marcos Jr has vowed to defend national sovereignty, but has spoken strongly of the need to enhance ties with China in other areas.
His ambassador to the United States, Jose Manuel Romualdez, on Tuesday said dialogue was the favored approach.
“We remain optimistic that the best way forward is still diplomacy,” he told a maritime forum. “Nevertheless, we are prepared to deter aggression.”
In a statement marking the anniversary, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the arbitration was final and China must “abide by its obligations under international law and cease its provocative behavior.”
In a swipe at the United States, his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi said it was important territorial issues be handled within the region.
“We will oppose bloc confrontation and Cold War mentality,” he said in Malaysia.
—Reporting by Karen Lema; additional reporting by Rozanna Latiff in Kuala Lumpur; Editing by Martin Petty