The Philippines pledged to act with restraint a week after China tried to block a boat ferrying supplies to Filipino troops on a disputed reef in the South China Sea.
“(The) Philippines makes clear that it will continue to exercise self-restraint and will not raise tension in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea),” Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said.
He issued the statement after a week of diplomatic wrangling following a Philippine boat’s delivery of food, water and fresh troops to Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal, which is also claimed by Beijing, by slipping through a blockade by two Chinese coast guard vessels.
A small number of Filipino soldiers are stationed on a Navy vessel that was grounded on the shoal in 1999 to assert the Philippines’ sovereignty.
A day after the incident, the Philippines further infuriated China by asking a United Nations tribunal to declare Beijing’s claims to undisputed sovereignty over most of the strategically important sea as illegal.
China strongly criticized the Philippine government actions, warning that the UN appeal had “seriously damaged” bilateral ties and holding Manila responsible for the “consequences” of the UN move.
“The Philippines is not the country that has greatly increased its naval and maritime presence in the South China Sea,” del Rosario retorted late on Friday.
“Nor has it challenged freedom of navigation. Nor has it blockaded nor forcefully intimidated any other country in the South China Sea. Countries should be judged by their actions, not by their words.”
China has said its coast guard turned away another Filipino vessel on a similar resupply mission early last month, forcing the Philippine military to air-drop supplies to its small unit of marines aboard the Navy ship guarding the reef.
The reef lies 200 kilometers from Luzon, and more than a thousand kilometers from a major Chinese land mass.
It is part of the Spratlys, a chain of islets and reefs that sit near key shipping lanes and are surrounded by rich fishing grounds.
Apart from China and the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam also have overlapping claims to parts of the area.
Manila’s UN appeal argues Beijing’s claims are contrary to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and interferes with the Philippines’ sovereign rights to its continental shelf.
Both countries are signatories to UNCLOS, but Beijing argues that its provisions do not apply to the row.
It has urged the Philippines to negotiate directly with it.
Del Rosario said Friday UN arbitration “is a peaceful, friendly and a durable settlement mechanism under international law” that allows the Philippines to defend “what is legitimately and rightfully ours”.
In Japan, US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Saturday vowed America will stand by its security commitments to Tokyo, which also has maritime disputes with China.
Japan is locked in a bitter dispute with China over islands in the East China Sea, and some analysts have warned that Russia’s move in Ukraine could embolden Beijing or other powers to take unilateral action to settle territorial claims.
The US had earlier said it is committed to defending its treaty allies and warned China against using force in settling the sea disputes.
Soaring tensions in the East China Sea have prompted the United States to explicitly state its mutual defense treaty with Tokyo applies to the islets, which are currently administered by Japan.
Washington has warned China against trying to resolve the disagreement through force.
Hagel on Thursday voiced “increasing concern” over separate territorial disputes between several nations in the South China Sea, which Beijing claims almost in its entirety.
The Philippines and some other Southeast Asian states have accused China of aggressively asserting its claims and Hagel — without openly referring to Beijing — said there was no place for “bullying.”
“You always have concerns when these issues continue to play out and drag out. And you always have concerns when there’s any indication of coercion, intimidation, or bullying,” he told reporters travelling on his plane.
He said the United States did not take a position on the specific territorial arguments and favored resolving them peacefully.
But he added: “That said, we will honor all of our treaty commitments to our treaty partners.”