In the past, many Filipino fishermen were arrested and jailed for illegally fishing in Indonesian waters. Local authorities would usually retaliate and haul Indonesians straying into Philippines’ territorial waters in the south.

The fishing problem stems from the failure of both countries to delineate their respective sea boundaries even long after the territorial dispute over Miangas (Palmas) island was resolved by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, the same international court that ruled in favor of the Philippines after Manila questioned Beijing’s excessive claims in the South China Sea.

Before 1990, the Indonesians were protesting the maritime boundaries of the Philippines because it was in violation of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), which both Jakarta and Manila had signed and ratified.

The Philippines continued to hold on to its territorial boundaries as drawn by the 1898 Treaty of Paris, where Spain ceded its only colony in Southeast Asia to the United States.

Domestic pressure has been preventing the Philippines from defining its borders through its maritime baselines based on international laws, even if it knows the boundaries drawn by the Treaty ot Paris were way beyond the 1982 Unclos.

Negotiations to delineate the southern boundaries in the Celebes and Sulawesi seas began under the administration of Fidel V. Ramos in 1994, but it took two decades before the two countries signed an agreement fixing the borders in accordance with Unclos, under the administration of Benigno Aquino III.

The agreement came into force this year after both countries’ ratified the agreement. The Philippine Senate concurred with the decision of President Rodrigo Duterte to approve the deal signed in 2015 by Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario and his Indonesian counterpart, Marty Natalegawa.

The deal put behind them an irritant, and Manila secured Jakarta’s backing in a protracted territorial dispute with Beijing, which refused to recognize the 2016 ruling by PCA that rejected China’s nine-dash-line claims in the South China Sea.

The PCA did not only nullify the nine-dash-line claim, it also ruled that all features in the Spratlys are not entitled to a 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) because no island or feature in the South China Sea is capable of sustaining life and the most these features can claim is 12 miles of territorial waters.

It effectively diminishes China’s claim beyond its coastal EEZ in Hainan, making its claim over the Reed Bank, an area known to have rich deposits of natural gas and possibly oil, illegal.

The ownership of Miangas island was settled in a 1928 PCA ruling. It was awarded to Indonesia even if the palm-ringed island was close to Mindanao than North Sulawesi.

It took over 90 years after the PCA ruling on Miangas island for the Philippines to let go on its own maritime claim in the southern waters and adhere to the 1982 agreement.

China must learn from the Philippines. It must abandon its claims in the South China Sea based on historical basis and observe the 1982 Unclos to gain the respect of the international community, particularly its smaller and weaker littoral neighbors,

The Philippines and Indonesia are now the best of friends in the region. Jakarta has been supporting Manila on its peace process policy with Muslim rebels, helping in combatting transnational crimes, including terrorism as well as ienhancing trade through the Brunie-Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippines (BIMP) East Asia Growth Area (EAGA) sub-region.

The fishing problem was resolved by a bilateral fishing agreement and a stronger border patrol and crossing agreement. Jakarta has also supported Manila’s military capability upgrade, helping reduce the Philippines’ reliance on the West for its equipment requirement. Indonesia built the country’s two largest military transport and logistics vessels.

Again, China can learn from the same Indonesia-Philippines partnership. Manila can be a reliable economic partner under the proposed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a free trade agreement among Southeast Asian countries with partners like China, Japan, South Korea, India. Australia and New Zealand, which will very soon take effect to complement Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

The Indo-Pacific region, as envisioned by Jakarta, could become a stable, secure and progressive region with lesser tension fueled by territorial dispute. Indonesia and the Philippines showed an excellent model of cooperation as well as a more peaceful and diplomatic way of resolving a dispute.

China has to make its move now, and learn from this experience.