ULAN BATOR: Tokyo raised pressure on Beijing at an Asia-Europe summit Saturday to respect an international tribunal’s ruling that dismissed its claims to much of the South China Sea.
At a retreat outside the Mongolian capital Ulan Bator, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told the assembled leaders that the rule of law was “a universal principle that the international community must firmly maintain,” according to Japan’s Jiji Press.
“I strongly hope the parties to the dispute comply with the award and lead to a peaceful solution of the dispute in South China Sea,” he said.
The Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague on Tuesday ruled that there was no legal basis for Beijing’s claims to much of the West Philippines Sea (South China Sea), which are embodied in a “nine-dash line” that dates from 1940s maps and stretches close to other countries’ coasts.
The ruling has proved a boon to Tokyo, which is embroiled in a separate territorial dispute of its own with Beijing and vies with it for influence across Asia.
China boycotted the PCA hearings, saying the court had no jurisdiction, and has reacted furiously, vowing to ignore the ruling and arguing that it misinterprets international law.
It also said the subject should not be brought up at the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) in the Mongolian capital.
But despite Chinese objections, the EU also weighed in on the subject, with President Donald Tusk telling reporters that the grouping “will continue to speak out in support of upholding international law,” adding that it had “full confidence” in the PCA and its decisions.
“It’s not so easy to agree with our Chinese partners when it comes to this issue,” he said. “Our talks were difficult, tough, but also promising.”
The comments by Abe and Tusk on Saturday followed a blitz of meetings between the Japanese leader and officials from around the region, including his Vietnamese counterpart Nguyen Xuan Phuc and Philippine Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay, on the summit sidelines as he sought to build consensus on the issue.
Both countries have competing claims with Beijing in the strategically vital South China Sea, where tensions have mounted over the Asian giant’s construction of artificial islands capable of supporting military operations and its claims on the region’s marine resources.
Manila, which brought the PCA case, has promised not to “taunt or flaunt” the verdict.
But Japanese foreign ministry spokesman Yasuhisa Kawamura said that in his meeting with Abe, Yasay agreed to “closely cooperate” at upcoming ASEAN-related conferences to ensure that the “parties to the dispute comply with the final award of the tribunal.”
Leaders of the Southeast Asian grouping have so far failed to issue a statement on the ruling, reportedly due to objections from member states with close ties to China.
In Abe’s meeting with Phuc, the two leaders agreed that the tribunal’s ruling should be observed, and Abe offered to increase cooperation on building Vietnam’s maritime law enforcement capabilities, Kawamura said.
Abe also brought his argument directly to Chinese Premier Li Keqiang during a heated 30-minute meeting Friday.
Kawamura described the exchange as “frank and candid” and Chinese state media accounts described the Chinese leader telling Abe that Japan should “stop hyping up and interfering” in the dispute.
China has sought to assert its claims in the South China Sea by building a network of artificial islands capable of supporting military operations, and this week reiterated its right to declare an Air Defense Identification Zone in the area, which would demand civilian flights submit to the authority of its military.
While the summit’s final communique made no specific mention of the South China Sea, it said that leaders “reaffirmed their commitment” to maritime security and settling disputes according to the UN Convention on the Law of Sea.
Yasay thanked Abe for Tokyo’s “strong support” to Manila.
The Department of Foreign Affair (DFA) on Saturday said Yasay said the favorable decision of the tribunal provides a legal basis to move forward, and that the Philippine government is currently studying the ruling thoroughly.
Yasay also informed Abe that the Philippine constitution prohibits Manila from entering into any agreement that would compromise national interests and rights of Filipinos.
Yasay described the ruling as a “milestone decision,” and an “important contribution” to ongoing efforts in addressing the longstanding sea row.
“The Philippines reiterates its abiding commitment to pursue the peaceful resolution and management of disputes with a view to promoting and enhancing peace and stability in the region,” he said. “At the same time, we attach great importance to measures that will restore trust and confidence among parties in the region.”
Play by the rules
China must abide by the same international rules as everyone else, US Vice President Joe Biden warned.
The United States has no claims of its own within the vast area, but insists that all shipping has a right to pass through seas it regards as international waters.
“We expect China to play by the same rules as everyone else,” Biden told the Sydney Morning Herald in comments published Saturday, referring to the international rules-based system that governs claims to maritime territory.
He added that “we’re urging both China and the Philippines to abide by the ruling.”
Biden said it is vital that freedom of navigation is maintained.
He said the US was working “with Australia, and countries throughout the region, to insist that the liberal international order be maintained as it relates to sustaining the free flow of commerce — keeping sea lanes open and the skies free for navigation”.