WHILE the issue on the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) may not be on the official agenda, President Benigno Aquino 3rd may still bring up the matter with world leaders attending the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, Philippine government spokesmen said on Friday.
In separate briefings, Malacanang deputy spokesman Abigail Valte and Department of Foreign Affairs spokesman Charles Jose said there are opportunities for the concerned leaders to discuss–in bilateral sideline meetings–international concerns, including disputes in the West Philippine Sea.
“Every economy that comes to an APEC summit is fully cognizant of the fact that there may be bilaterals that will happen outside the Leaders’ Retreat, and that the agenda for that is set by the parties that will be engaging each other,” Valte said.
But the official added that she could not comment on the actual agenda until such time that the bilateral meeting, if any, is concluded.
Valte was reacting to a statement purportedly released by Washington that President Obama might raise the sea issue during the APEC summit as the US grows more concerned over activities of the Chinese military on islands and shoals in the Spratlys that are being claimed in part or in whole by China, the Philippines and other Asian countries.
A White House spokesman was quoted as saying that the US will raise the issue of freedom of navigation during the summit, a move that may be widely considered to be in favor of the Philippines.
“All the member economies are fully aware that it’s an economic forum, such that geopolitical or political concerns usually take the backseat… However, I have no information on the intent of US as a member economy and where they intend to raise the said issue,” Valte explained.
Meanwhile, Jose admitted that they have “no control” over what other economic leaders might raise during the retreat, where the dispute may be discussed.
“When Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with Secretary [Albert] del Rosario, Secretary del Rosario said that we recognized that APEC is a economic forum and that the South China Sea is not included in the agenda. But at the same time, Secretary del Rosario said, of course, we have no control over what the other economic leaders would be raising during the Leaders’ Retreat,” the DFA spokesman told reporters.
According to Jose, there was no indication from Beijing through Ambassador Wang about a possible bilateral meeting with the Philippines but this does not mean that such meeting would not take place.
“We are not closing the door on that possibility. There could be an opportunity for the two leaders to have a [meeting]even maybe briefly [to]be able to talk to each other,” he said.
Jose claimed that any discussion on the sea issue would weigh in favorably for the Philippines, which is “greatly encouraged by international public opinion.”
“Many countries have expressed support to our approach of using peaceful means of trying to resolve the dispute and also our approach of upholding the primacy of the rule of law and many countries have gone to the extent of expressing support for the arbitration case that we filed before the Arbitral Tribunal of Unclos [United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea],” he said.
In Washington, the White House said territorial disputes will be a “central issue” when Obama meets with Asian leaders next week but downplayed hopes for a “code of conduct” to ease tensions.
National Security Adviser Susan Rice said territorial claims in the West Philippine Sea — which have put the United States in direct dispute with China — would feature prominently during a trip to the Philippines and Malaysia.
“This will be a central issue of discussion both at the East Asia Summit as well as at the Asean-US Summit [both in Kuala Lumpur]and the other engagements that we have throughout our visit to Asia,” Rice added.
That seemed at odds with China’s insistence that an Asia-Pacific summit next week in Manila should not discuss rising tensions.
Beijing, along with several other Asian countries, have a knot of claims to maritime territory.
But China’s decision to reclaim and build on reefs and other bodies recently prompted the US Navy to send in guided missile destroyer the USS Lassen to within 12 nautical miles of at least one of the artificial islets in the Spratlys chain.
Besides China, the other claimants are the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei Darrusalam and Taiwan, with some of their claims overlapping.
During his trip to the Philippines, Obama will tour a maritime facility, designed to underscore the US commitment to Philippine maritime security, amid talk of a fresh batch of US aid.
Manila recently won the right for an international panel to hear several territorial disputes with China. Beijing has so far ignored the proceedings.
Rice said the US view “has always been that these disputes need to be resolved through peaceful, legal means.”
“The establishment and implementation of a code of conduct agreed among the leaders of the region, the states of the region and, in particular, the claimants would be a positive
step forward,” she added.
“But I don’t expect it to be a concrete outcome of this particular visit.”