Manila: The Philippines clarified that it has no plans to set aside a July 2017 UN arbitral court ruling favouring Manila in its dispute with Beijing over several islands in the South China Sea.

Reacting to remarks issued by former Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario last Tuesday that the palace had appeared to have foregone the Philippine government’s claim over several outlying South China Sea islands, Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo said the palace is just being realistic when it took the position that, at the moment, there is no system yet in place to enforce the 2017 arbitral ruling.

“Palace reiterates that there was no shelving of the arbitral ruling. Our position has been consistent in that there is no system of enforcing the arbitral ruling. The International Tribunal has no armed component to enforce its decision in the event that the losing state refuses to recognise the judgement,” Panelo said.

It can be recalled that in July 2017, UN Arbitral Court in Hague, the Netherlands, ruled in favour of the Philippines on the issue challenging China’s so-called “historic rights” over several outlying islands and reefs in the South China Sea.

In his comment on the issue last April 16, Del Rosario, who had filed the case versus China over the issue in 2013, said the Philippines had apparently given up on the claim which the previous administration had worked hard for.

“It is mindless as our presidential spokesperson appears to be in surrender without lifting a finger to peacefully defend what is ours,” Del Rosario said.

But Panelo said the Philippines is simply avoiding sparring with China in a conflict that it could not manage at this time.

“Any armed enforcement of the arbitral ruling could provoke bloody hostilities between the two countries. Bilateral negotiations to resolve the conflicting claims is the better and circumspect option than unnecessarily risking the lives of our soldiers,” the palace official said.

President Rodrigo Duterte is set to meet President Xi Jinping next month and there is pressure on the Philippine leader to take up the matter on the arbitral ruling with his counterpart.

“The President’s (Duterte) previous statements that he would not in the meantime raise the issue of the arbitral ruling as he discusses trade relations is not shelving the judgement. By repeatedly making such statements, he in fact puts China on notice that such issue remains and a sword of Damocles hanging over its head,” Panelo said.

The Philippines had been counting on the US to take its side in the event of a shooting conflict with China as both countries are bound by the 1951 Mutual Defence Treaty, but Panelo said this is a matter that is yet to be put to the test as the US has its own interests and has its own reasons for avoiding hostilities with China.

In the meantime even as Filipino politicians spar on the issue, Chinese fishermen continue to take natural resources that belong to the Philippines.

Incumbent Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said they are looking into the reported mass harvesting of giant clams at the disputed Scarborough Shoal or Bajo de Masinloc in Zambales.

Bajo de Masinloc is located 198 kilometres west of Subic which was once America’s biggest naval base in the Pacific outside of the US mainland.