President Benigno Aquino 3rd on Saturday pulled no punches in criticizing China for its aggressiveness in staking its claim to the West Philippine (South China) Sea as he told his counterparts in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations that the Asian giant’s island-building threatens stability in the region.
“As I have stated many times in the past, our collective prosperity requires stability in the region. This has come under threat by unilateral actions such as the massive reclamation and building of structures on features in the Spratly (Kalayaan) islands, which have urgent and far-reaching implications to the region and the international community,” the President said in his speech at the start of the ASEAN summit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
China claims ownership of the entire South China Sea based on a nine-dash line theory which the Philippines and Vietnam questioned before the United Nations tribunal. Parts of the sea are also claimed by Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan.
The Philippines anchors its claim on the provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) which set a 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone. The Philippines and China are among the signatories of the UNCLOS. Beijing however refuses to recognize the jurisdiction of the UN tribunal and insisted that the sea dispute be resolved bilaterally.
Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario early this year revealed that Manila repeatedly attempted to engage Beijing but each attempt ended in a deadlock, prompting them to elevate the issue for international arbitration.
Aquino refrained from raising the maritime dispute in last week’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit at Beijing’s request.
Last April, the President said he will push for the crafting of Code of Conduct in the South China Sea during the ASEAN summit in Malaysia.
Aquino, in his speech, said that ASEAN should not let any country–no matter how powerful–claim an entire sea as its own especially when it is resorting to force.
“We believe that, as a rules-based community, ASEAN should not allow any country, no matter how powerful, to claim an entire sea as its own and to use force or the threat thereof in asserting such a claim,” he said.
The President stressed anew that the western section of Spratly Islands or the Kalayaan Island Group is within the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines based on the UNCLOS provisions.
He then urged his fellow ASEAN leaders to develop a post-2015 ASEAN Connectivity Agenda “that articulates both our aspirations and the complexities we have to contend with.”
“We have not resolved, even amongst ASEAN members, the competing claims especially among the Spratlys. These improvements further complicate and increase the difficulty of coming to compromises that will be necessary to prevent further tension from rising,” he added.
Meanwhile, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib echoed Aquino’s call for a peaceful rules-based approached in resolving the territorial disputes
Najib, in his speech during the opening ceremony of the 27th ASEAN summit, underscored “the importance of resolving disputes through peaceful means, in accordance with international law including United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)”.
“We call on all parties to exercise self-restraint, and avoid actions that would complicate or escalate tension. That is the Asean way,” Najib said.
President Aquino noted that the Philippines “has always adhered to the rule of the law.”
“Our decision to resort to arbitration reflects our belief that it is a transparent, friendly, durable, and peaceful dispute settlement mechanism that can bring stability to the region,” the President said.
The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague unanimously decided last October that it has jurisdiction over the maritime dispute between China and the Philippines regarding parts of the South China Sea.
The press statement released by the Permanent Court of Arbitration “on behalf of the Arbitral Tribunal in the Philippines v. China arbitration” clarified that the dispute was not about sovereignty, as China has claimed.
“This arbitration concerns the role of ‘historic rights’ and the source of maritime entitlements in the South China Sea, the status of certain maritime features in the South China Sea and the maritime entitlements they are capable of generating, and the lawfulness of certain actions by China in the South China Sea that are alleged by the Philippines to violate the Convention,” Aquino said.
“We welcome the Arbitral Tribunal’s decision on jurisdiction, and look forward to the next round of hearings, scheduled for next week at The Hague. The Philippines remains committed to pursuing arbitration to its final conclusion, and will abide by its decisions,” he added.