Filipino activists protest outside the Chinese embassy in Manila on July 12, hours before the arbitration court in The Hague issued a ruling on disputed waters in the South China Sea. (Photo by Eli Sepe)
The Permanent Court of Arbitration's rejection of China's territorial claims in the South China Sea is no cause for alarm, church leaders in the Philippines said.
"We don't think there's cause for alarm," said Bishop Ruperto Santos of Balanga, head of the Episcopal Commission on the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People.
"We have strong ties with the people of China," said Bishop Santos, adding that many Filipinos trace their roots to China and there is "a reservoir of goodwill and friendship" between the people of the two countries.
The Philippines brought the case against China before the tribunal in The Hague in 2013 after Beijing turned reefs and rocky outcrops into islands equipped with airfields, ports and lighthouses in the disputed territory.
On July 12, the tribunal ruled in favor of the Philippines, saying China has no legal basis to claim historical territorial rights to most of the South China Sea.
China, which snubbed the proceedings, rejected the decision of the international body.
Chinese President Xi Jinping said China's territorial sovereignty and maritime interests in the South China Sea would not be affected by the ruling.
The Chinese government said it is opposed to foreign "invasion" of the islands but it "respects and upholds the freedom of navigation and over-flight enjoyed by all states under international law in the South China Sea."
Philippine church officials called on the government in Manila to immediately start "peaceful negotiations" with China.
"The Philippine government should act and find peaceful means for China to respect the decision, otherwise it is an empty victory," said Bishop Pedro Arigo of Puerto Princesa in Palawan province.
The island of Palawan lies between the South China Sea and the Sulu Sea.
Bishop Arigo called on the government to "seek help from the international community to pressure the Chinese government to respect the rule of law."
The tribunal ruled that there is no legal basis for China "to claim historic rights to resources" in the disputed territory. The tribunal also ruled that China violated the Philippines' sovereign rights in its exclusive economic zone.
Bishop Santos reminded Filipinos to "remain humble in celebration of the victory" because the Philippines still has to encourage China to abide by the decision.
Bishop Arturo Bastes of Sorsogon said Philippine leaders "must use diplomatic means to keep China away from that portion of our country."
"There should be a sincere move not to resort to armed conflict with China," he said.
Auxiliary Bishop Broderick Pabillo of Manila welcomed the ruling as "a positive development."
"With this legal advantage, the Philippine government can now assert its rights," said Bishop Pabillo, adding that both countries "must move forward with peaceful talks of political and diplomatic agenda."
Former president Benigno Aquino, whose administration filed the case against China, said the long-running dispute is now "closer to having a permanent solution."
Aquino urged Filipinos to understand the issues involved, saying that instead of viewing the decision as a victory of one party over another, "the best way to look at this judgment is that it is a victory for all."
"The clarity rendered now establishes better conditions that enable countries to engage each other, bearing in mind their duties and rights within a context that espouses equality and amity," said Aquino.
However, retired Archbishop Oscar Cruz of Lingayen-Dagupan warned that the decision will sour relations more.
"Whatever decision [the tribunal] makes is irrelevant as far as China is concerned. Therefore, the more divisions there will be between the Philippines and China," he said.
The Philippines, China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei, and Vietnam have competing claims over the South China Sea.