BEIJING: China warned on Thursday of a “decisive response” to provocations in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), as it faced mounting pressure to accept an international tribunal’s ruling against its claims to most of the strategically vital waters.
The Philippines, which launched the legal challenge, called for China to respect the decision and defied Chinese objections by saying it would raise the issue at a summit of Asian and European leaders in Mongolia starting on Friday.
China, which had already vowed to ignore Tuesday’s verdict by the UN-backed tribunal in The Hague, responded with another firm warning that it was in no mood to back down.
“If anyone wants to take any provocative action against China’s security interests based on the award, China will make a decisive response,” foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said.
China claims nearly all of the sea — which is of immense military importance and through which about $5 trillion worth of shipping trade passes annuall — even waters approaching the coasts of the Philippines and other Southeast Asian nations.
It justifies its claims by saying it was the first to have discovered, named and exploited the sea, and outlines its territory using a vague map made up of nine dashes that emerged in the 1940s.
The tribunal, however, sided with the Philippines in ruling that China’s claimed historic rights to resources within the nine-dash map had no legal basis.
It also declared that China had acted unlawfully by violating the Philippines’ sovereign rights within its exclusive economic zone — waters extending 200 nautical miles from the Philippine coast.
China had done so by interfering with Philippine fishing and petroleum exploration within the exclusive zone, as well as by building artificial islands there.
It had in recent years undertaken giant land reclamation works in the Spratlys archipelago, one of the biggest island groups in the sea that partly falls within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.
The United States and Australia were among Philippine allies this week to quickly call on China to respect the ruling, pointing out it was legally binding.
The Philippines had initially refrained from asking China to abide by the verdict — in line with President Rodrigo Duterte’s directive to achieve a “soft landing” with Beijing on the issue.
Duterte, who took office on June 30, has said he wants better relations with China and to attract Chinese investment for major infrastructure projects.
Unlike Aquino, he has expressed intent to talk directly with China over the issue.
Beijing also wants to negotiate but at the same time insists it will never concede on sovereignty.
But the Philippines hardened its stance on Thursday with a statement detailing Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay’s priorities when he attends a two-day Asia-Europe summit, known as Asem, in Mongolia along with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang.
“Secretary Yasay will discuss within the context of Asem’s agenda the Philippines’ peaceful and rules-based approach on the South China Sea and the need for parties to respect the recent decision,” the Foreign Affairs department said in a statement.
Even just raising the issue at the summit would anger China, which has long bridled at
Philippine efforts to have the dispute discussed at multilateral events.
Chinese assistant foreign minister Kong Xuanyou insisted on Monday that the Asem meeting was “not an appropriate venue” to discuss the South China Sea.
But Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said also on Thursday as he left for Mongolia that he wanted the sea row to be discussed at the summit.
Vietnam, another claimant in the South China Sea, added to the pressure on Beijing.
“Vietnam asks China to immediately end moves that violate Vietnam’s sovereignty,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Le Hai Binh told reporters in Hanoi.
The Chinese government and state media have this week unleashed a tirade of vitriol against the tribunal, and vowed never to give up claims to the sea.
“Do not turn the South China Sea into a cradle of war,” vice foreign minister Liu Zhenmin told reporters in Beijing on Wednesday in a warning to rivals.
He said China may introduce an air defense zone over the sea, which would give its military authority over foreign aircraft, depending on the “threat” level.