The funeral of former Philippine President Aquino III was held Saturday (June 26) at a private cemetery in Manila. Critics say the funeral has implications beyond the borders of the Philippines, radiating to almost all countries around the smoky South China Sea and beyond.
According to the Associated Press and Reuters, the streets of Manila were lined with Filipinos on Saturday, some with cell phones and yellow ribbons, remembering President Aquino for his many contributions to their country, including defending Philippine democracy, reaching a peace deal with Muslim guerrillas and standing up to Chinese bullying in the bitter sovereignty dispute over the South China Sea.
Aquino III died Thursday at the age of 61 after a long illness due to kidney failure. His presidency ran from 2010 to 2016. Born in 1960, Aquino III was the only son of Mrs. Corazon Aquino, the 11th president of the Philippines. Aquino III was the 15th president of the Philippines.
Aquino’s family and friends sang patriotic songs as the silver urn containing Aquino III’s ashes was placed next to his mother’s grave. A military honor guard fired a 21-gun salute in honor of Aquino III.
Immediately after Aquino III’s death, U.S. President Joe Biden issued a statement expressing his condolences. Biden said, “He was a cherished friend and partner of the United States, and his years of service to his country with integrity and selflessness will always be remembered.”
In his statement, Biden also said, “Aquino’s strong commitment to peace for all Filipinos, to the rule of law and to economic growth, while taking bold steps to strengthen a rules-based international order, has left an extraordinary legacy at home and abroad that will endure for a long time.”
Biden’s reference to “strengthening the rules-based international order” refers not only to the pro-U.S. line Aquino III chose during his tenure, but also to Aquino’s courage to stand up to China in the sovereignty dispute over the South China Sea.
In 2013, Aquino III decided to challenge China’s claim of sovereignty over almost all the waters of the South China Sea by filing a lawsuit with the international arbitration body in The Hague.
On July 12, 2016, the international arbitration body issued a final ruling that completely rejected the legal validity of China’s “nine-dashed line” claim covering almost all of the South China Sea, finding that Chinese vessels had entered the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone as an act of aggression and that China had violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights over its exclusive economic zone and continental shelf, as well as the Spratly Islands (South China Sea). It also found that all islands and reefs in the Spratly Islands (Spratlys) that are above water at high tide are legally “rocky reefs” that cannot create an EEZ, or continental shelf, etc.
Although the Philippines’ sovereignty claim was not implemented by the international arbitration body’s ruling due to China’s rejection of the arbitration result, the legal challenge against China initiated by Aquino III has given a moral boost to neighboring claimants.
In recent years, China has been reclaiming islands in the South China Sea at a high rate, expanding the reefs into sizeable islands and deploying military facilities on these artificial islands, increasing tensions in the South China Sea. In March this year, hundreds of Chinese fishing boats docked in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone and refused to leave, causing strong anger among the Philippine public. The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs lodged daily protests with China.
The death of Aquino III has made the Filipino people miss the leader who dared to confront China even more. The Associated Press reported that a letter from a reader was broadcast on the Philippine DZMM radio network. The letter praised Aquino III as one of the most courageous presidents to confront China.
The current Philippine president, Rodrigo Duterte, has distanced himself from the United States since taking office, and has been actively involved with China, receiving considerable assistance from the country. However, China has not conceded to the Philippines on the sovereignty issue of the South China Sea, but has become more aggressive. The turn of public opinion in the Philippines is forcing Duterte to reconsider his policy toward China.