THE United Nations should act on the complaint filed by the Philippines against China which continues to assert its presence in disputed areas in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
British Ambassador to Manila Asif Ahmad on Thursday said the international community wants the UN to rule on the competing claims between China and the Philippines since a decision handed down by the arbitration tribunal will clarify the extent of the claims in the disputed region.
“What the international community wants is to use the rules-based approach, to have it resolved,” the envoy told reporters.
The Philippines filed a complaint before the UN-backed International Tribunal of the Law of the Sea in January last year. China has refused to join the arbitration, which questions the validity of Beijing “excessive” nine-dash line claim, but the Philippines will press ahead with the legal initiative.
Ahmad said all countries under the UN system are required to follow rules, “which are clear to everybody.” He added: “Instead of ignoring them, in a dispute like this, when there is border dispute, there are mechanisms in the UN through the law of the sea where you can get guidance as to whether a particular maritime right can be extended to a particular island or rock.”
He noted that it is advisable to follow the rules than to assert a country’s claim by force.
“Instead of asserting your claim by force of by simply stating that this is ours or whatever, here’s an opportunity to go by the rules and say ‘this is the judgment of an arbitration,’ “ he said at the sidelines of the British Embassy in Manila’s social media reception at his residence in North Forbes Park.
But Ahmad clarified that the United Kingdom is not taking sides in the territorial dispute between the Philippines and China. “We’re not going to say whether the Philippines or China is correct. You’ve got to prove your case or argue your case. But you have every right to use these international rules and mechanism to have your case heard.”
Yet, the ambassador believes that China’s nine-dash line claim in the West Philippine Sea will not affect British navigation in the commercially vital waterways. He said China’s supposed sovereignty over the disputed region has “not manifested in a way which affected British navigation and we don’t expect it to.”
“Up to now, they [British ships] have navigated without any hindrance from anyone. We haven’t had an issue. It’s speculative, [and]right now, it’s not a problem for us,” he said.
The United Kingdom, Ahmad said, follows the United Nations “definition” of international waters, so their ships and aircraft are expected to go “unimpeded when we go from one place to another.”
The UN defines international waters as the area beyond a coastal country’s territory, which includes the exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Foreign vessels are allowed “innocent passage” to these waterways.
The Philippines and its neighboring countries maintain a 200-nautical mile EEZ, as well as an extended continental shelf.
About 46 percent of the world’s shipping activities pass by the West Philippine Sea, and global trade in these parts is estimated at $5 billion annually.
On Monday, Armed Forces Chief of Staff Emmanuel Bautista reported that Chinese coast guards used water cannons to drive away Filipino fishermen at the Panatag (Scarborough) shoal weeks ago, prompting the government to file a note verbale with the Chinese embassy here.
Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin on Thursday pushed for a calibrated response if the Chinese Coast Guard continues to bully Filipino fishermen. “In case the Chinese Coast Guard vessel will still persist [in]water cannon attacks, [our]response should be calibrated where we will have the Philippine Coast Guard to maintain ‘white-on-white’ response so as not to heighten the tension,” he said.
White-on-white is a military term for a civilian to civilian ship confrontation, or one that involves the Coast Guard, while gray would refer to the Navy.
When tension first erupted at the Panatag shoal in 2012, the situation was described by the military as a “gray-to-white” response because the Philippine Navy’s cutter BRP Gregorio del Pilar, a fully-armed military ship was used in the arrest of eight Chinese fishing vessels caught poaching in Panatag Shoal.
Coast Guard Commandant Rodolfo Isorena said there are ships that can be deployed to patrol the Panatag area should the President direct them to do so. “We are just waiting for a directive from the President if he wants us to go there or not,” Isorena said.