China has rejected the Philippine proposal to freeze all provocative actions in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), where Beijing has constructed an airstrip and a school and drilled for oil.
Yi Xianliang, the deputy director of the Boundary and Ocean Affairs Department of China’s Foreign Ministry, said the proposal is unhelpful and that it would undermine plans to conclude a more binding Code of Conduct (COC).
A moratorium on all construction activities in the West Philippine Sea is the first step in the Triple Action Plan (TAP) that will be proposed by the Philippines at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum (ARF) to be held in the city of Nay Pyi Taw in Myanmar.
The second and third parts of the plan involve implementation of the 2002 Declaration on the Code of Conduct (DOC) and the conclusion of the COC, and the final solution for the disputes.
The United States has backed up Manila’s proposal, believing that a freeze on “provocative actions” in the disputed but resource-rich waters will be “helpful” in maintaining peace and stability.
Michael Fuchs, a State Department deputy assistant secretary in the East Asian and Pacific Affairs bureau, said what constitutes “provocative actions” in the region will be up to the claimants to define.
He, however, spoke against new outposts, new seizure of territories, construction and land reclamation.
The Philippines earlier called on China to stop its “ambitious expansionism” in the region after Beijing reclaimed at least five Philippine-claimed reefs: Mabini Reef, Malvar Reef, Calderon Reef, Burgos Reed and Kennan Reef.
But Yi said negotiations on the proposed “freeze” would only undermine talks on coming up with the Code of Conduct. He added that there was a “double standard” on activities in the West Philippine Sea.
Yi was quoted in several reports as saying, “Why is it that when other countries wantonly build airports, nobody says a word? But China has only this year started small and necessary construction, to raise living conditions on the islands, and so many people raise doubts.”
He said nobody can change China’s position that it holds sovereignty over 90 percent of the resource-rich sea, and that it would only negotiate with claimant-countries on a bilateral level.
Yi criticized Washington for interfering in a regional issue and said the global superpower should let involved parties handle the issue.
“Trust in us Asian people to use Asian means and wisdom to resolve our own problems,” he said.
But the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said China’s stance will not stop the Philippines from presenting its proposal at the Asean summit.
The TAP will “manage tensions in the area for the sake of regional peace and stability,” Charles Jose, DFA spokesman, said.
“We believe that our framework proposal is positive, constructive and comprehensive, and will be beneficial to everyone in the region,” Jose added.
Malacanang said the Philippine government will continue to push for a moratorium on any construction in disputed territories in the West Philippine Sea.
“We won’t be shaken by any refusal since we believe that our position is justified,” Presidential Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr. said in a news conference.
Chito Santa Romana, a China expert, said the Philippines may have a chance to “overcome” Beijing’s rejection if other countries will fully support TAP.
“Despite the Chinese rejection, it bears watching how much support the Philippine proposal will get from other claimant countries and the rest of Asean, as well as from the other countries that are part of the Asean Regional Forum. A solid support from the other claimant countries and the overwhelming majority of ARF participants are the best chances for the Philippines to overcome the Chinese rejection. Otherwise, the Philippines will face an uphill diplomatic battle,” Santa Romana added.
Parts of the The West Philippine Sea are also being claimed by Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei Darussalam.