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THE Philippine government squandered its biggest win in the South China Sea disputes when it decided to remain silent about it, an American maritime expert said.

Manila, under the leadership of President Duterte, also dilly-dallied on implementing the military access agreement with Washington DC, which Beijing took advantage of. As a result, China now dominates the naval, air, missile and electromagnetic spectrum in the South China Sea, said Gregory Poling, senior fellow for Southeast Asia and director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“The biggest missed opportunity was July 12, 2016 (the day the arbitral ruling was announced),” Poling said in an interview with Business- Mirror and CNN Philippines.

According to the Permanent Court of Arbitration, China’s claim that it owns the South China Sea has no legal maritime basis. It was a legal victory for the Philippines when it challenged China’s nine-dash lines around the South China Sea.

China did not participate in any of the arbitration proceedings in The Hague and never accepted the ruling.

Poling said as soon as the arbitration tribunal ruled in favor of the Philippines, 56 countries “were willing to demand” that China “comply” with the ruling. “But the Philippine government didn’t ask for (international support),” he quipped.

“Nobody—aside from a small number of countries, if I’m not mistaken eight — was willing to stand up for the Philippines when it wouldn’t stand up for itself,” he added.

The Philippine government also failed to rally the support of the UN General Assembly when China continued to defy the ruling.

“The Philippine government has never called for a vote before the UNGA. Respectfully, I think it would win. There might be a few abstentions among countries who don’t want to upset China,” he added.

‘Pure law is victor’

In a speech during the US-Asean Summit in Washington DC last May, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. justified Duterte’s policy to stand down on rhetoric against China even after winning the arbitration ruling.

“After winning that case, we did not actively seek its recognition by the international community. That would have undermined the totality of our victory by diluting its binding force with the seeming need for international acclamation and support. The victor is pure law,” Locsin explained.

Poling said the incoming new administration of President-elect Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos can still revive the arbitral award.

“It’s not too late to bring back the arbitral award now. But the new administration will have a much harder time now because the old administration waited for six years not doing this,” he said.

Poling also lamented “another missed opportunity on the decision not to implement EDCA (Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement) right away.”

EDCA is the military access agreement allowing US forces visiting the Philippines for military exercises to use its military camps and other logistics. EDCA was signed in 2014 but its constitutionality was questioned, and later upheld, before the Supreme Court.

“We did nothing (with EDCA) while China continued to build up its islands, to modernize. As a result, the Philippine armed forces are in much worse condition today than they were even a few years ago,” he added.

Poling is in Manila to promote his book entitled ““On Dangerous Ground: America’s Century in the South China Sea.”

Image credits: AP/Bullit Marquez