THE United States will work with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and other countries with claims to the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) to address the colossal destruction perpetuated by China on some of the world’s most biodiverse coral reefs if the Philippines wins its case against Beijing, according to Colin Willett, deputy assistant secretary of the US Department of State’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs.
“As we know, there has been a great environmental damage done in the South China Sea, and it’s not something that is easy to undo. But I do think that the US, Asean and the claimant states should use this opportunity to work collectively and cooperatively address this kind of issue,” Willett said in a telephone conference with Southeast Asian journalists.
China has turned the pristine habitats in the disputed sea into permanent islands, building runways, military outposts and small towns, damaging the marine ecosystems in these areas.
The Philippines filed a memorial against China before the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague, The Netherlands, in 2013 to affirm its right to areas within 200 nautical miles of its coastline, under the terms of a United Nations convention.
China had said it will not abide by the ruling of the tribunal since it did not participate in the case.
But Willett said there was no way for China to ignore the tribunal’s decision because the resolution will be legally-binding.
“Us in the international community, who have all benefited so much from a rule-based order where international law provide for all countries to meet each other, have to make clear to Beijing that it is in their interest to abide by a ruling and to uphold the international law that has been beneficial not just to the region but to the China itself. We have to make it very clear that as the international community, we support the convention on the law of the sea. We have to make clear that we all expect China to live up to its obligation under the convention,” she added.
Willet noted that the tribunal’s decision will reduce the tension in the disputed territory as it will clarify the maritime entitlement of six competing countries.
Apart from the Philippines and China, Brunei Darussalam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims to the strategic waters, which are believed to contain huge deposits of oil and gas, through which about $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes annually.
“If China ignores the ruling and disregards its obligation under the law of the sea, it is setting up for further confrontation with its neighbors. In our view, the ruling should not be seen as a threat but as an opportunity for a real diplomatic solution,” the US official said.
Meanwhile, Willett questioned a recent statement of China that it is not militarizing the West Philippine Sea and its activities are for civilian purposes.
“What China is doing vastly outstrip what all other claimants have done over the past several decades. China’s argument that these military outposts were civilian works for civilian purposes just doesn’t pass muster,” she said.
Willett believes that China’s runways in Woody and Spratly islands were “designed to accommodate strategic bombers, not cargo planes for humanitarian assistance or disaster relief.”