The 2016 arbitral ruling the Philippines won against China was not “just a piece of paper” and President Rodrigo Duterte should take a more assertive stance to enforce this victory, experts said at the Tapatan sa Aristocrat forum on Monday.

Clarita Carlos, a University of the Philippines political science professor, said the ruling, which invalidated China’s nine-dash-line claim to almost the entire South China Sea, would become just a piece of paper if not enforced.

“Indeed, like UN (United Nations) Security Council resolutions, if you do not back it up with force, it is just a piece of paper,” she said in the online forum.

During his weekly address on May 5, Duterte claimed the arbitral ruling was “a mere piece of paper” he would “throw in a wastebasket.”

Lawyer Howard Calleja said the ruling was legally binding and it was not up to China whether to abide by it or not, since it had signed the 1982 United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea (Unclos).

“It is a piece of paper that has the effect and force of law and recognized by the international community. Except, of course, by China, so I think it is up for the Philippines to enforce it and solicit the help and assistance not only of our friends but the entire international community, who likewise supports, and agrees with, the decision,” Calleja said.

In July 2020, the Chinese embassy reiterated Beijing’s rejection of the ruling.

“China’s position is consistent, clear and firm. The South China Sea arbitration and its so-called award are illegal and invalid. China does not accept or participate in the arbitration, nor does it accept or recognize the so-called award,” the statement read.

Antonio Ligon, a lawyer, said the ruling could not be disregarded as the international arbitration court acknowledged it.

“Lahat naman ng desisyon papel lang ‘yan. Pero itong desisyon ng arbitral tribunal, hindi pwedeng … gamit ‘yung adjective na ‘mere scrap of paper’ sapagkat kinilala ‘yan ng arbitral tribunal. Kinilala ng mundo, maliban lang sa China,” said Lignon, a law professor at De La Salle University.

Carlos, a former president of the National Defense College of the Philippines, said the Philippines should also “shift gears” and enter into a regional fishing agreement as a regional sea code of conduct continued to face delays.

“Let us shift gears, ilang beses na natin sinisipa-sipa ‘yang Code of Conduct na pinapaglaro lang tayo ng China, and let us have a regional fishing agreement,” she said.

Calleja said the Philippines should present a “peaceful” solution and enter into multilateral agreements with all parties involved.

He said it was not in the best interest of both the Philippines and China to go to war and that the Philippines should not “rattle the words of war.”

“But a defeatist attitude starting from the president is not the proper start,” he said.

Calleja, who is a professor at Ateneo de Manila University, called on Duterte to retract his statements that were “against the interests of the Filipino people.”

Former associate justice Antonio Carpio and several San Beda University alumni earlier urged Duterte to retract his statement that China was in possession of the West Philippine Sea and the arbitral award was just a piece of paper to be thrown away.

Ligon said that while the Philippines did not have the military might to enforce the ruling, it was important to tell China to “back off.”

“Nanalo tayo, okay, walang blue guard na pupunta d’yan para i-enforce ‘yung decision but at least we will be consistent with our stand. That even [if] we are a small nation, we are against it (China’s actions),” he said. Charlene Grace Lao