THE Philippines will not stop the United States if it plans to block China from artificial islands in the contested West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. said on Saturday.
He said the Western power also has its own interest in the international waters – a strategic sea lane through which more than half global trade, amounting to $5.3 trillion each year, passes.
“If it is the national interest of the US to prevent China from occupying disputed features in the South China Sea, they are free to do so as the area is within international waters,” the official told The Manila Times.
Yasay was responding to the remarks by US Secretary of State-designate Rex Tillerson during a confirmation hearing in Washington last week that China must be denied access to reefs it had reclaimed in the disputed waters.
“We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that, first, the island-building stops and, second, your access to those islands also is not going to be allowed,” the former ExxonMobil executive told US senators.
On Friday, China’s state-run media warned the United States there would be war if it moved to block China’s access to the islands.
“Unless Washington plans to wage a large-scale war in the South China Sea, any other approaches to prevent Chinese access to the islands will be foolish,” the Global Times said in an editorial.
China Daily took a similar line, saying: “It would set a course for devastating confrontation between China and the US. After all, how can the US deny China access to its own territories without inviting the latter’s legitimate, defensive responses?”
China’s official reaction to the comments was muted, with foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang politely urging Washington to mind its own business.
“The South China Sea situation has cooled down and we hope non-regional countries can respect the consensus that it is in the fundamental interest of the whole world,” he said.
China has irreversibly destroyed seven South China Sea reefs and turned them into artificial islets, despite overlapping claims by the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan.
On the Philippines’ part, Yasay said the government would continue bilateral discussions with China to peacefully resolve the sea row and eventually implement a ruling of an international arbitral tribunal in favor of Manila.
The Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration nullified Beijing’s excessive claims in the disputed South China Sea in July 2016, upholding the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) that gives the Philippines sovereign rights to areas within its 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone.
“We have our interest to protect and we are committed to resolve the issue to implement the arbitral tribunal’s ruling peacefully and in accordance with international law,” Yasay said.
He added that a legally binding framework for the code of conduct of Southeast Asian nations and China in the South China Sea will be completed in the middle of the year.
The code of conduct may pave the way for the enforcement of the Philippines’ international victory, he added.
But the Chinese foreign ministry expressed confidence “the issue of the South China Sea won’t be discussed” under the Philippines’ chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) this year.
“I believe you are all aware that the Philippine government has stated explicitly that during their serving as the rotating chair of Asean, the issue of the South China Sea won’t be discussed at Asean meetings,” the Chinese foreign ministry’s Lu was quoted as saying in a translated transcript issued on Saturday.
Yasay, however, said Manila had only decided not to raise the arbitration ruling, as it was a bilateral issue between Manila and Beijing.
“The South China Sea issue will likely be the subject of interventions during the Asean meetings but not the arbitral tribunal ruling. We will continue to urge the observation of the rule of law and the 1982 Unclos,” he said.