Guest columnist

Lieutenant General Aurelio B. Baladhat (Rest)

The WPS is a battleground of international tensions, where territorial and Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) claims have fueled disputes between overlapping neighbours. Amidst this complex geopolitical landscape, the Philippines is at a crossroads, facing the daunting task of upholding international law and promoting regional stability while safeguarding its sovereignty and sovereign rights in this critical maritime region. Navigating these challenges requires a delicate balance of diplomacy, strategic partnerships, domestic solidarity, and assertive presence.

Since 2009, China’s activities in the WPS, including military and maritime militia efforts and island-building, have heightened regional tensions. The Philippines filed a case at the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague, which led to a ruling on July 12, 2016. The 479-page ruling affirmed the Philippines’ sovereign rights in the WPS EEZ and invalidated China’s claims to the „nine-dash line.” This legal victory, based on international law and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), demonstrated the effectiveness of global legal mechanisms. It emphasized adherence to the established legal framework in settling maritime disputes, setting an important precedent. Empowered by this victory, the Philippines stands on firm legal and moral ground. In order to maintain this momentum, the Philippines must continue to support this judgment, insisting on universal adherence to international law, particularly UNCLOS. By gaining international support, the Philippines can uphold legal principles and resist unilateral actions in the WPS, ensuring regional stability.

Diplomacy should form the foundation of the Philippines’ approach to the WPS issue. Engaging in multilateral dialogues and negotiations, especially with China, is crucial. Communication channels rooted in mutual respect and understanding pave the way for peaceful resolutions. Active participation in regional initiatives such as bilateral talks and the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea negotiations is essential to foster an environment of cooperation and trust.

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It is imperative to strengthen strategic partnerships with like-minded countries committed to international law and regional stability. Joint efforts with countries such as the US, Japan, Australia and Europe can provide diplomatic support and act as a deterrent against potential aggression. At the same time, investment in modernizing naval capabilities, improving surveillance technologies and improving coast guard operations are important steps. Joint efforts with allies facilitate knowledge exchange, training programs and resource sharing, ensuring a capable and vigilant maritime force capable of protecting Philippine waters. Establishing a credible security position is essential in protecting our sovereign rights in the WPS.

Domestic unity is paramount in facing external challenges. Open communication with citizens, facilitated by civil society, academia and the media is essential. It is necessary to educate people about the issues of WPS issue, the legal status of the country and the importance of unity. Intensified public diplomacy efforts, both domestically and internationally, are necessary to maintain support and counter disinformation campaigns.

Maintaining a sustained and strong presence in the WPS is critical despite mounting challenges. This presence of the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG), Philippine Navy (PN), and Philippine Air Force (PAF) is necessary to conduct maritime surface and aerial patrols in the region. China’s assertive maneuvers through the Chinese Coast Guard (CCG), the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and maritime combatants increase the complexity, demanding exceptional maritime capabilities. However, caution should be exercised despite these circumstances to prevent further escalation.

Other maritime aspects are vital to the development and stability of Philippine occupied islands in WPS such as Pag-asa Island and AFP troops such as BRP Sierra Madre in Ayungin Shoal. In addition, sustainable management of marine resources by the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) within the claimed territory should be a priority for environmental protection and establishing a strong foundation for asserting sovereign rights. Promoting organized fishing activities by Filipino fishermen and ensuring their safety reinforces the Philippines’ sovereign rights. Another avenue to explore is involving the Bureau of Tourism (BOT) to promote ecotourism in these areas.

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Most importantly, this sustained and robust presence must be planned and coordinated by the government as it represents and protects the sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction of the Philippines in the WPS. Finally, it calls for effective diplomatic, security and political leadership to effectively manage the situation.

Faced with increasing challenges, the Philippines charts its course to protect sovereignty in the WPS. Based on a landmark legal victory, we remain steadfast in our pursuit of international law and global support. Diplomacy, strategic partnerships, domestic unity and a strong regional presence underpin our path forward. By fostering unity, educating our citizens, and fostering partnerships with like-minded nations, we strengthen our position. With a strong maritime presence, sustainable resource management and eco-tourism, we demonstrate our sovereignty. With unity and determination, the Philippines exemplifies its enduring commitment to its sovereign rights in the WPS, ensuring a future of peace, stability and prosperity.

(Lt. Gen. Aurelio B. Baladad (ret.) served as the 8th Commander of the Eastern Mindanao Command, 32nd Commander of the 3rd Infantry (Spearhead) Division and former Deputy Chief for J3 Operations of the AFP. He holds a Master’s Degree in Development Management (with District) of AIM. He is now VP of Cooperative Planning and Marketing for PAFCPIC, a cooperative serving active and retired AFP personnel.)

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