Filipinos rejoiced on the streets of Manila as word came down Tuesday that an international tribunal ruled overwhelmingly in their favor in a legal dispute with China over claims to the South China Sea.
Now the looming question for President Rodrigo Duterte and his newly installed administration is how hard to press its victory over their vast — and now annoyed — neighbor across the strategic waterway.
“The Philippines strongly affirms its respect for this milestone decision,” Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay said after urging both sides to “exercise restraint and sobriety.”
The Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled that China violated the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone and concluded that Beijing’s historic claims to most of the South China Sea have no legal basis.
Mr. Duterte, a populist onetime provincial mayor with a reputation for blunt talk, was uncharacteristically diplomatic in his rhetoric in the days before the decision. He inherited the case from predecessor Benigno Aquino when he was elected president last month.
During a Cabinet meeting last week, Mr. Duterte said he was opposed to issuing a strong statement if the tribunal ruled in the Philippines’ favor. He concluded that China could “dig in and put us to a test,” and if they did “there’s no point for us to yell.”
Although the president wishes to repair relations with China, he cannot appear weak in defense of his nation’s sovereignty. The court’s ruling could complicate any efforts to renew a relationship between the two countries.
But the award “is binding on China,” Francis Jardeleza, an associate justice on the Philippine Supreme Court, told The Wall Street Journal. He said Mr. Duterte “can now proceed with the necessary tools to get the job done.”
The ruling highlighted “our collective belief that right is might and that international law is the great equalizer among states,” according to former Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario, who helped file the case with the court.
“It’s an overwhelming victory. We won on every significant point,” said the Philippines’ chief counsel in the case, Paul S. Reichler. “It’s a victory for international law and international relations.”
While the Philippine government welcomed the “milestone decision,” there was little outright celebration.
However, Filipinos quickly took to Twitter using the hashtag #Chexit — a call for China’s vessels to leave what are now sovereign waters of the Philippines. Before and after the decision, about 100 demonstrators waving Philippine flags marched outside the Chinese Consulate in Manila shouting, “Chexit now.”
Upon hearing the decision, the demonstrators jumped for joy, cried and embraced one another. One held up a sign reading, “Philippine sovereignty, non-negotiable.”
“You harassed our fishermen, destroyed our reefs and plundered our marine resources. It’s time for you to leave our territory,” one Twitter user posted.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.