Press Release
May 31, 2023

Senator Risa Hontiveros and Ambassador Henry Bensurto Jr. during the Commission on Appointments hearing

Senator Risa Hontiveros (SRH): Moving forward, also noting that country after country, parami nang parami yung bilang ng kumikilala ng ating tagumpay sa Hague tribunal. Most recently, a whole formation of NATO, what steps can be taken to ensure the wider recognition as an international norm of our victory in the West Philippine Sea arbitration? And perhaps, its eventual implementation.

Amb. Bensurto: I think it's very important for us to tell the world what exactly was the ruling and it is very important for the international community to understand the legal and political implications of the ruling. If I may be more specific in that, in the past, whereas more than 500,000 square km of Philippine exclusive economic zone and another more than 500,000 square km of continental shelf, that's about a million square km of continental shelf and exclusive economic zone -- most of this now are no longer disputed because of the ruling. What used to be a large area of disputed is just now just limited to something like 13,000 square km. 13,000 sq km out of a million square km. What that means, therefore, is that it clarified the exclusive economic zone of the little countries, by that I am referring to the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, and Vietnam.

That being affirmed, the freedom of navigation is also affirmed. And therefore, what we have to tell the world is the wide-range, far-reaching implications of the South China Sea, that it is more than a bilateral issue between the Philippines and China. The implication is far-reaching, in terms of the South China Sea, with more than a third of global trade passing through. Some authors even put it at 60% of total global trade. And therefore the implications of that ruling includes both the literal state that I mentioned, the user states in terms of those countries that use the South China Sea, but more than that, is the concept or context of rule of law. That after World War II, international relations have been galvanized and has kept the peace based on rule of law and rule of law is the tie that binds all of us in a community of nations.

I think that message should be put forth to the international community so that the international community can understand the issue as more than a bilateral but something that also has implications in the peace and security on a global basis.

SRH: We are talking here of peace and security more assured in a larger part of the planet based on the rule of law. At saka interesting din po in terms of magnitudes or proportions, hindi lang mathematically, but geopolitically as well, significant na 1 million square km of the ocean in our region is no longer disputed, compared with the remaining 13,000 sq km. And again, hindi lang iyan usapin ng matematika or arithmetic, but geopolitically, it really means a lot for the peoples of our region and the peoples of the whole planet, hindi lang tayong mga Pilipino. It's a very important message that our country can share with the rest of the world. Yun po yung isang understanding ko sa binahagi niyo sa amin.

In light of China's continuing gray zone and salami slicing tactics in the West Philippine Sea, what measures can the Philippines take to protect our national interests and assert our rights? Are there diplomatic or legal or other strategies within that space that can be employed to address these challenges?

Amb. Bensurto: I just want to make a disclaimer at the very outset, because I'm not part of the policy-making at the moment in terms of that issue, and therefore, the opinion and the comments I will put forward are principally my own opinion which is based on my previous engagement on the South China Sea. To answer your question, I would rather look at it, contextually, this way. I will have to look at my tool box and see what are the tools available to me and therefore once I know what are the tools available to me, and those tools could mean multilateral, bilateral, it could be internationalization, it could be minimum credible defense. What I'm saying your honor is that I have to be creative and apply those tools or a mix of policy tools in every given situation with a clear objective of what exactly we want to achieve.

Obviously, everything will have to be within the parameters of peaceful settlement and we have to therefore in that context see what is the appropriate tool that we can calibrate at any given moment of time. And I will not disregard any or either of those tools, but will simply have to understand how to calibrate and which tool would be appropriate at any given time.

SRH: The image of a tool box is very useful, very helpful, kahit po sa aming nagtratrabaho in that policy-making space that you referred to at the very start. I appreciate yung sinabi niyong may iba't ibang tools talaga that used maybe in different calibrations at different moments can better advance and protect our national interest and including through cooperation between the executive and the legislature and of course including in terms of cooperation among the different interested parties, tayong mga bansang nandito and the rest of the world, the other formations, the other naval powers, na interesado din sa rules-based approach dito sa conflicts na ito.

My last question for the Amb. Given the complex nature of the West Philippine Sea issues, the dispute, how can the Philippines effectively engage with other nations particularly those with vested interest as well in the region to garner support for our stance and ensure that that rule of law you mentioned, prevails?

Amb. Bensurto: I think in deciding what to do here, we have to first and foremost look first at our own national interest because at every given time, that would be the fundamental core principle that we have to take into account. But having said national interest, it's not enough that we mention national interest in its abstract concept. There has to be an effort on the part both of the executive and the legislative to somehow operationalize that in the context of the South China Sea, and what that means therefore is we have to have specific objectives at the end of the day and once we are able to clarify ourselves exactly what we want to do there, then we can now think of the roadmap or the strategy on how to calibrate certain tools in order to achieve those objectives. Once we are able to do that, we can put in the timeline and milestones in terms of what we want to achieve at a certain given time, all leading to the final objective or the goal that we have set for ourselves.

In that context, the internationalization or the ability to engage the international community is just one of the tools. It's not the end of everything but rather is a means and a tool we have to take into account in relation to our national interest. What that means therefore there needs to be a real discussion, engagement among all the concerned agencies to come up with those concrete policy steps.

SRH: Thank you, Amb. But of course yung engagement with other nations may be also in certain moments, it may be the primus interpares among our tools and given nga not just how complex the dispute is in the West Philippine Sea or the whole South China Sea, literally and figuratively fluid, napaka-importante po talaga. And of course we have to presume yung ibang mga bansa, iba't iba, they are also looking at their own toolboxes and figuring out how to use them, sometimes in a more friendly way with us, sometimes less so, pero that's where we count on the diplomatic corps to advise us ano ang best policy positions to take, given yung what you the diplomatic corps can put into the problem solving at any moment how we can identify common interests among the different national interests at any point in time to achieve that desired, not end state, kasi nga fluid for eternity na siguro, but in our time, and in the time of the generation of our children, the generation of our grandchildren, something hopefully that's getting better and better over time.

Amb. Bensurto: Thank you for your comments. I completely agree with your observation. I think the events in the last 10 years have shown us how small the world is as a community, that when there is a situation on one part of the globe, that obviously will have implications on the other parts of the world, and so many years ago, in 2011, when we first broke into the international scene within ASEAN and told the world essentially that what is at stake in the South China Sea is the concept of rule of law, we were telling the world that this is something that is of your interest because this is the tie that binds all of us in the community of nations and when this very core principle of international law is broken in this part of the world, it will have implications on other parts of the world.

We are now seeing the implications of that as we look at the situation in Ukraine. Just to put a period on that, I completely agree. We don't live as an island, alone, but we live ina. community. Living in a community means we have to be able to interact, inter-relate, engage, dialogue, with other countries as well.

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