Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario on Sunday accused China of a “massive” military buildup in the disputed sea and warned that such tactics were a threat to peace in the region.
Addressing the 46th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) Ministerial Meeting in Brunei, del Rosario did not give details, but he was apparently referring to the continued presence of Chinese vessels at the Panatag (Scarborough) and Ayungin (Second Thomas) shoals, which are being claimed by both countries.
He said there was a “massive presence of Chinese military and paramilitary ships” at the shoals.
Del Rosario said such a military presence in the West Philippine Sea threatens “efforts to maintain maritime peace and stability in the region.” He added that such “destabilizing actions continue to pose serious challenges for the whole region.”
China took control of the Panatag shoal following the standoff with Manila in July 2012 when Chinese surveillance ships blocked Philippine authorities from arresting Chinese fishermen found to have illegally collected corals, sharks and giant clams.
Filipino fishermen can no longer fish in the shoal, a rich fishing ground. The shoal is well within the Philippines’ 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone.
Panatag is just 400 kilometers west of Zambales, well within the country’s 200-mile exclusive economic zone.
Ayungin is 120 nautical miles from Rizal, Palawan, and is about 500 nautical miles from the nearest Chinese province of Hainan.
Del Rosario said China’s continued military presence in the West Philippine Sea violates the Declaration on the Code of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC).
Manila brought its maritime dispute with Beijing before the United Nations-backed International Tribunal of the Law of the Sea (Itlos) early this year, but China refused to join the arbitration case, pushing instead for bilateral negotiations with claimant countries.
The declaration on conduct signed by Asean members and China committed claimants to settle their disputes “without resorting to the threat or use of force.”
“We reiterate our continued advocacy for a peaceful and rules-based settlement of disputes in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law,” del Rosario said.
He noted that a rules-based approach in the resolution and management of maritime disputes involves two complementary components—expeditious arbitration under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) and early conclusion of a Code of Conduct between Asean and China.
Del Rosario said the clarification of maritime entitlements, which the Philippines seeks through arbitration, “promotes the primacy of the rule of law in inter-state relations.”
“The legal track does not constitute abandonment of diplomatic avenues. We continue to exert efforts to move forward and enhance our relations with China on the basis of mutual respect and sovereign equality. Neither does the case diminish our zeal to pursue a binding Code of Conduct,” he said.
Del Rosario said that a secure and stable environment and enhanced well-being of people are important to preserve the peace and prosperity of the region.
China claims nearly all of the sea, even waters approaching the coasts of neighboring countries.
Besides the Philippines and China, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia, as well as Taiwan, also have competing claims to parts of the sea.
The rivalries have for decades been a source of regional tension, with China and Vietnam fighting battles in 1974 and 1988 for control of some islands in which dozens of Vietnamese soldiers died.
Tensions have again grown in recent years with the Philippines, Vietnam and some other countries expressing concern at increasingly assertive Chinese military and diplomatic tactics to stress control of the sea.
China’s state-run media warned Manila on Saturday that its defiance could lead to aggressive Chinese action.
“If the Philippines continues to provoke China . . . a counterstrike will be hard to avoid,” said a commentary run by the People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the ruling Communist Party.
Del Rosario on Sunday expressed alarm at such rhetoric.
“The statement on counterstrike is an irresponsible one. We condemn any threats of use of force. We condemn that. And we continue to pursue the resolution of our disputes in a peaceful way,” he said.
Asean has been trying for more than a decade to secure agreement from China on a legally binding code of conduct that would govern actions in the South China Sea.
China has resisted agreeing to the code, wary of making any concessions that may weaken its claim to the sea.
Nevertheless, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said Asean would continue to press its case with China in Brunei.
He said that a code, while not a “magic wand”, would be an important tool in avoiding conflict.
“We need to manage and prevent miscalculations and unintended actions, reactions and (where) we have a huge furore and huge incident on our plate,” he said. “That is too huge a risk to have, this . . . sense of anarchy, a sense of lawlessness.”
The talks will expand on Monday and Tuesday to include the United States, China, Japan, Russia and other countries across the Asia-Pacific, providing the platform for face-to-face diplomacy on many of the world’s hot-button issues.
WITH A REPORT FROM AFP