• Sea rows turning into ‘environmental’ issue

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    The Philippines on Sunday said maritime disputes in the South China Sea (West Philippine Sea) have evolved into an “environmental issue.”

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    During the annual meeting of states that are parties to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), it pointed out that China’s expansionist policy claiming almost all of the South China Sea should concern the international community as a whole.

    The Unclos is recognized by 167 countries, including the Philippines and China.

    Ambassador Lourdes Yparraguirre, the country’s Permanent Representative to the UN, noted the growing concern on the implementation of Unclos because of China’s increasingly aggressive rhetoric and action in the South China Sea.

    “This threatens the integrity of the convention, our Constitution for the oceans,” Yparraguirre said in a statement.

    The Unclos, which was adopted in 1982 and entered into force in 1994, defines the rights and responsibilities of state-parties with respect to their use of the world’s oceans, establishing guidelines for businesses, the environment and management of marine natural resources.

    The ambassador recalled China’s recent actions that continue to infringe on the exercise and enjoyment by the Philippines of its sovereignty and sovereign rights to its own exclusive economic zone.

    This began in 2012 when China reneged on a mutual agreement to withdraw naval presence from Scarborough (Panatag) Shoal, which is only 124 nautical miles west of Luzon–the Philippines largest group of islands–and about 800 nautical miles southeast of China’s nearest coast.

    Since then, China has been in possession of the shoal, erecting a barrier to its entrance to prevent the access of Filipino fishermen to their traditional fishing grounds.

    Yparraguirre said China has been violating not only Unclos but also the 2002 Association of Southeast Asian Nations-China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea and the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites) for its accelerated large-scale ocean filling, or “reclamation” in several disputed features in the Spratlys, including Johnson Reef, McKennan Reef, Mischief Reef, Cuarteron Reef, Gaven Reef and Fiery Cross Reef.

    The last one alone expanded to 11 times its original area.

    “To undertake this . . . ocean filling or reclamation, [China] . . . has had to dredge out and pulverize entire systems of coral reefs that took many centuries to grow, reducing them into landfill, and thus devastating the already fragile marine ecosystem and biodiversity of the region by irreparably destroying the habitat of depleted, threatened or endangered species and other forms of marine life,” Yparraguirre said.

    The ambassador cited data from marine scientific experts that China’s destruction of the coral reef systems in the South China Sea and their transformation into over 800 hectares of landfill has resulted in an estimated economic loss of $281 million annually.

    The cost of the resulting environmental tragedy is “incalculable,” according to Yparraguirre.

    “There should be no attempt to assert territorial or maritime claims through intimidation, coercion or force, including through unilateral and aggressive action such as massive, large-scale land reclamation. There should be no pattern of forcing a change in the status quo in order to advance a so-called nine-dash line claim of undisputed sovereignty over nearly the entire South China Sea,” she said.

    The ambassador pointed to a dispute settlement mechanism under Unclos and explained that China’s massive ocean-filling activities are meant to change the status quo ahead of a ruling by the arbitral tribunal constituted to hear the Philippines’ case impugning China’s so-called nine-dash line.

    “If there is doubt and uncertainty on the limits of our adjacent maritime spaces affecting several state-parties in the region, and if bilateral consultations and negotiations have proven futile and one-sided because of lack of good faith, then the solution is the dispute settlement mechanism provided by Unclos and the UN Charter . . . Arbitration under Unclo is a pacific and rules-based mode of settling disputes,” she said.

    Given China’s perceived aggressive moves in the South China Sea, a lawmaker also on Sunday said the Philippines should step up its call for international condemnation of Beijing.

    Quoting security experts, the Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun earlier reported that China aims to secure air superiority over the West Philippine Sea to enhance its ability to thwart military maneuvers, especially surveillance flights by the US Navy, in disputed areas.

    “Under international law, no country can control an entire sea because seas and oceans form part of the commons of all countries who should have access over all the seas,” Bayan Muna party-list Rep. Neri Colmenares Colmenares, a lawyer, told The Manila Times in a text message when asked on the matter.

    “Allowing China to control [another country’s]airspace is a violation of international law and the international community will not allow this. We should therefore intensify our call for international condemnation of China as this is not merely an issue of the Philippines but of all countries as well,” he said.

    Colmenares urged Filipinos living in other countries to unite and work with other peoples “in pressuring China to abandon its baseless territorial claims” in the West Philippine Sea.

    According to the report, which quoted Hideaki Kaneda, director of the Okazaki Institute and a former admiral in the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force, China will deploy at least two Jin-class nuclear-powered submarines on patrol missions to the disputed waters before the end of the year.

    WITH REINA TOLENTINO

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