Benigno Aquino 3rd on Tuesday said he sees nothing wrong with Washington’s sending of a warship close to artificial islands China is building in the South China Sea (West Philippine Sea) but the move prompted Beijing to furiously denounce what it called a threat to its sovereignty.
The USS Lassen, a guided missile destroyer, passed within 12 nautical miles–the normal limit of territorial waters around natural land–of Zamora (Subi) Reef, which Beijing claims in the Kalayaan (Spratly) Island Group.
Vice Admiral Alexander Lopez, commander of the Philippine military’s Western Command (Westcom) told The Manila Times that a surveillance aircraft was dispatched to survey the sea lanes where the USS Lassen was expected to pass but said visibility was poor in the area.
Washington’s long-awaited move to assert freedom of navigation in the West Philippine Sea also escalated the dispute over the strategic water, where Beijing has been transforming reefs and outcrops into artificial islands with potential military use.
The United States had said the action was part of the country’s “routine operations in the South China Sea in accordance with international law,” an American official told Agence France-Presse. “We will fly, sail and operate anywhere in the world that international law allows.”
President Aquino, speaking before the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (Focap), said any country has the right to traverse the West Philippine Sea based on international norms.
“I see no issue as to this US Navy ship traversing under international law in waters that should be free to be traveled upon by any country,” Aquino told reporters.
“So long as everybody conforms to established international rules and laws, then I don’t think the Philippines should have any negative apprehensions about these acts. And if we say we are in support of freedom of navigation for everybody, then we seek to hamper anybody’s travel, that I think seems to be inconsistent,” he said.
China’s foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang, meanwhile, blasted the exercise, saying the ship “illegally entered” the waters near the islands “without receiving permission from the Chinese government.”
Beijing “resolutely opposes any country using freedom of navigation and overflight as a pretext for harming China’s national sovereignty and security interests,” he said, adding it would “staunchly defend its territorial sovereignty.”
Tensions have mounted since China transformed reefs in the West Philippine Sea–also claimed by several neighboring countries–into small islands capable of supporting military facilities, a move the US says threatens freedom of navigation.
Washington has repeatedly said it does not recognize Chinese claims to territorial waters around the artificial islands.
Beijing has also repeatedly said the construction work is primarily for civilian purposes, and Chinese President Xi Jinping during a visit to Washington last month pledged that the country will not militarize the area.
Satellite images of the islands, however, show that China has reclaimed millions of square meters of land in the Kalayaan Island Group and has built a host of facilities, including as many as three runways.
The work has been seen as an attempt by Beijing to assert its territorial claims by establishing physical facts in the water, although international law says they can only arise from naturally occurring geographic features.
The West Philippine Sea is a strategically vital waterway with shipping lanes through which about a third of all the world’s traded oil passes, and the dispute has raised fears of clashes.
The US, which is engaged in a foreign policy “pivot” to Asia, and China, which has the world’s largest military and is expanding the reach of its navy, are jockeying for position in the Pacific.
Beijing regularly calls for a “new model of major country relations,” implying equality between the world’s top two economic and military powers.
Tuesday’s operations were “not directed at any specific country,” the US official said.
“US forces operate in the Asia-Pacific region on a daily basis, including in the South China Sea,” he added.
The sail-by was “long overdue,” said Bonnie Glaser, a senior China expert at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), adding that the exercises “should be done quietly, regularly, and often.”
“There should be no media fanfare,” she said.
“The way this has been handled has left the Chinese believing that the US is challenging its sovereignty rather than simply exercising freedom of the seas,” Glaser added.
Balancing of power
President Aquino said he expects Washington’s move to be welcomed not only by the Philippines but other stakeholders as well.
“I think everybody would welcome a balance of power anywhere in the world,” the President added.
When asked to explain further, Aquino said if the public pronouncements of “one regional superpower” are left unchallenged then these are accepted, and if they are accepted, they become de facto the reality on the ground.
“The American passage through these contentious waters is meant precisely to say that there are norms as to what freedom of navigation entails and they intend to exercise, so that there is no de facto changing of the reality on the ground,” he added.
Aquino referred to China’s declaration of an Air Defense Identification Zone extending over an area where “there are so many agreements that have been entered into that all countries have been bound to for the longest time.”
“When you change something, there is general agreement among all parties that are affected, as to what changes would bring about a better regime in terms of travel, it cannot be determined by one entity,” he said.
“So the balance of power says that there is not just a single voice that must be adhered to. There has to be a plurality of voices when all parties are affected by changes of the realities on the ground,” the President added.
He allayed fears that the Philippines’ support for US presence would affect its arbitration case before an international arbitral tribunal.
“I think expressing support for established norms of international behavior should not be a negative for the country,” Aquino said.
“Let me put it in reverse: Somebody suddenly changes the rules and are we, how should I put it, we just accept the changing of the rules without any consultations, without any negotiations, without even an agreement, is I think the wrong behavior to undertake,” he added.
Beijing, which refuses to recognize international arbitration in its maritime dispute with neighboring countries, had repeatedly called on the Philippines and Vietnam to resolve the issues bilaterally.
Manila, however, explained that they sought UN arbitration after numerous attempts to resolve the matter with Beijing all ended in a deadlock.
President Aquino said he is still willing to hold bilateral talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping during the culmination of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit next month.
According to him, the Philippines has formally sent invitations to Xi to attend the APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting (AELM) in Manila on November 18 and 19.
“Currently, there is no schedule for bilateral talks, but we are very open to it,” Aquino said.
The President added that he would want to discuss about stability during his possible meeting with Xi.
“Well, if it will just boil down to one sentence, then it will be what I have already told his predecessors. All our governments are supposed to be there for the improvement of the lot of our people, improvement in their lives and this can only happen if there’s stability. So if there is a central message that would be what I would want to convey,” he said.
Aquino maintained that the Philippines and China should continue improving their economic ties despite the territorial dispute.
“Philippine companies, I am told, invested something like two and a half billion dollars in the Chinese economy. China sent us tourists about 200,000-strong annually in 2011. We were sending about 800,000 at that point in time,” he said.
“The Chinese side has also pointed out the very long relationship, and obviously, it profits both to really be able to manage the issues that have a conflict between our two parties and go back to a concentration on that which can be beneficial for both sides,” Aquino added.
Japan in close contact
Tokyo and Washington are in close contact as the USS Lassen patrolled within 12 nautical miles of the Kalayaan Islands.
“We have is a close exchange of information,” Yoshihide Suga said at a daily briefing, declining further “comment on every move” by US forces.
WITH AFP, PNA AND FERNAN MARASIGAN