Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte went on the offensive across the South China Sea on Wednesday, in his very first speech to the UN General Assembly, emphasizing his country’s legal victory in The Hague in its far-flung naval battle with China.
In a video address recorded in Manila, Duterte said that the Philippines has rights over the parts of the South China Sea that the Hague decision declared to be within the country’s exclusive economic zone.
“The award is now part of international law, beyond compromises and beyond the reach of passing governments to dilute, reduce or abandon,” Duterte said.
“We firmly reject any attempt to undermine it.”
In his more than four years in office, it was the first time Duterte spoke to the UN agency, marking its 75th anniversary this year.
His statement on the South China Sea dispute is seen as the strongest to date, given his earlier statements that downplay the issue in exchange for Manila’s closer geopolitical and economic ties with Beijing.
Duterte is under growing pressure at home to challenge China – after largely putting distance for several years – with tensions high after a Chinese fishing trawler hit and sank a Filipino boat in the disputed waters in 2019 and after China’s continued expansion of artificial islands within the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines.
Over the past decade, China has built military installations on several disputed reefs and tributaries in the South China Sea to assert its claim to almost the entire sea. Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Indonesia also claim the water.
“Illegal claim for nine lines”
Beijing bases its claims on the so-called nine-dash line, a vague demarcation from maps dating back to the 1940s, which was declared illegal in a 2016 decision in The Hague. The court found that the Philippines has exclusive rights to resources within 370.4 km (200 nautical miles) of its coast.
Tensions have escalated in recent months as several world powers, including the United States and India, have sent warships and other naval vessels to patrol the disputed seas in an attempt to enforce the Hague government and claim freedom of navigation.
In his speech on Wednesday, Duterte said he welcomed “the growing number of states that have come out in support of the award and what it stands for – the triumph of reason over rash, of law over disorder, of friendship over ambition”.
“This – as it should be [be]”He said,” is the majesty of the law. “
In a statement to Al Jazeera and other news agencies, the retired Philippine Supreme Court judge Antonio T Carpio, a top critic of Dutter’s South China’s maritime policy, welcomed the president’s statement as “heartfelt”.
“I sincerely hope that this is the policy that the Duterte administration will implement at all levels – to protect our exclusive economic zone in the Western Philippines, in the negotiations on the Code of Conduct and to gather support from the international community for the enforcement of the arbitration. ”
Former Philippine Foreign Minister Albert del Rosario said in a statement that Duterte had “proved impenetrable, but listened to the will of the people.”
“By invoking the Arbitration (Hague) decision, the President has acted more loyally to our Constitution, which gives him and our military a mandate to secure our country’s sovereignty and protect our countries and seas.”
Duterte also used the speech to address the condemnation of the “drug war” that he began shortly after taking office. He accused “interest groups” of trying to “arm” human rights issues to criticize the campaign in which thousands of people have been killed.
Human rights groups have pressured the UN to conduct a full investigation into the drug war and accused Duterte of committing crimes against humanity.
“They are trying to discredit the functioning institutions and mechanisms of a democratic country and a popular government that for the past two years still has the same extensive approval and support,” he said.