Rodrigo Duterte won praises from his critics and political opponents after he raised the country’s major legal victory at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague for the first time, before the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 23.

It was a complete 180-degree turn from the president’s previous position of setting aside the arbitral ruling to win back China’s friendship and gain economically from the warm bilateral relations.

In July 2016, the Philippines won a landmark decision from the international tribunal, which rejected China’s excessive claims in the South China Sea under its nine-dash-line policy based on historical records from the Ming Dynasty.

During his speech before the 75th session of the United Nations General Assembly, Duterte said the “award is now part of international law, beyond compromise and beyond the reach of passing governments to dilute or abandon.”

“We firmly reject attempts to undermine it. This – as it should – is the majesty of the law,” he added.

Initially, the Philippines ignored the decision and the Duterte administration even retreated from the previous administration’s approach to internationalize the territorial issue by agreeing to Beijing preference – resolving the maritime issue through bilateral dialogue.

Beijing’s strategy is to divide and rule all other Southeast Asian nations laying claims on the strategic waters believed to have rich deposits of energy resources. It is also an important trading route where $3 trillion worth of sea-borne goods pass every year.

Using checkbook diplomacy, China has easily influenced many members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), particularly Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar, which became heavily dependent on Chinese aid, trade and investments.

Soon, even Brunei and Malaysia, which have active claims on the South China Sea, were pulled to China’s side due to economic considerations.

Thailand, which used to have a strong and close alliance with the United States, also fell into China’s sphere of influence after Washington bitterly criticized Thai generals who seized political power in a coup.

Only Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam appeared to be fiercely anti-China because of territorial disputes and strong alliances with the United States. Jakarta is not a party to the South China Sea dispute but resented Chinese fishermen’s encroachment into its non-disputed waters in Natuna in the southern part of South China Sea.

However, the Philippines softened its position since Duterte was swept into power in July 2016, only days before the arbitral court ruled in favor of the Philippines case against China.

Duterte refused to invoke the ruling but has repeatedly promised to raise it at a later date. He was rewarded by Beijing by improving trade relations and pledging $24 billion in aid and investments, which up to now remained a promise.

It took four years for other countries to throw their support for the arbitration ruling after the United States shifted its policy in July from being passive and neutral on the dispute to actively supporting the Philippines’ legal victory.

Three European countries joined the United States and called on China to comply with the arbitration court ruling and to act and behave as a responsible member of the international community.

China continued to defy the global public opinion, sticking to its hegemonic position which is not supported by any legal basis.

Duterte’s decision to invoke the arbitration ruling was a step in the right decision, and countries that respect and uphold the rule of law and international norms have started to fall behind the Philippines’ position.

For the first time in four years, the administration and the fractured political opposition have spoken in one voice against China’s illegal claims in the South China Sea, a situation that China does not want to happen.

China’s unrestricted war strategy aims to throw its enemies in disarray, dividing them and pitting them against each other.

It has worked in Asean and it has been working in the Philippines under Duterte, expanding its influence not only in the region but around the world to challenge the United States’ military and economic dominance.

The Duterte administration has been helping China in its global agenda by playing into its hands in exchange for crumbs. However some politicians have benefitted much from the arrangement.

Credit should go to the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) under Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. who has protected the country’s interests since he was appointed to the position two years ago.

Under Locsin’s leadership, Filipinio diplomats did not hesitate to invoke the country’s legal victory and worked silently to get support from the international community to respect the decision won in The Hague. 

It was a sharp contrast to the past leadership of the foreign affairs department, who was less forceful and passionate on the country’s legal victory in the South China Sea.

It was also a complete departure from statements made by spokesman Harry Roque who had been increasingly sounding more like the chief apologist of the Chinese embassy rather than the Philippine government.

After Duterte’s address before the United Nations General Assembly, Roque issued a statement that was pleasant to the ears of the Chinese foreign ministry, telling reporters the government did not shift on its position to set aside the arbitration ruling.

However, official records speak louder than Roque’s statements. The Philippines has not abandoned The Hague ruling and would always raise the issue at every available opportunity in international gatherings, like the United Nations and Asean.

At the UNGA, Duterte read a prepared speech but he certainly understood, absolutely and clearly, what he said when he invoked the arbitral ruling.

He had earlier promised to raise the issue. Perhaps, as his single, six-year term is about to end, he found it more appropriate to invoke the ruling before the United Nations.

The Philippines has waited for too long for China to pour investments into the country. Instead, only two token bridge projects over Pasig River were begun. 

Meanwhile, Chinese vessels continued to encroach into the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone and local fishermen were denied access into rich fishing grounds.

The Philippines must continue raising the issue internationally, bringing the South China Sea into the multilateral table instead of bilateral talks where China can easily dictate the terms.

The Duterte administration should keep pressuring China because the Philippines is no longer alone in this fight and it should not fear that war might break out because of the dispute.

Manila should learn from the lessons of the Second World War when European powers tolerated Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany’s rise through an appeasement policy.

China is afraid to publicly lose face. It has been winning the battle without firing a shot by dividing its enemies, but it certainly has not won the war because  it is standing on loose soil. 

The Philippines can win in the dispute because it has been fighting based on reason, on law, and on moral grounds.

Keep the pressure, internationalize the issue and remain united as one nation to seek justice.