International support for the Philippines in its dispute against China has been growing, with the United States being the most vocal in defending Manila from Beijing’s bullying in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
Malacañang on Tuesday said support for the country has grown beyond the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), where a code of conduct is being hammered out among claimant countries to settle the dispute.
On Monday, the US criticized China after its Coast Guard tried to block a Philippine vessel that was rotating troops in the tense South China Sea.
The attempted Chinese blockade, which led to a two-hour standoff with the Philippine ship, is “a provocative and destabilizing action,” State Department deputy spokesman Marie Harf told reporters.
Harf said the Philippines had permission to resupply troops stationed in Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal because it has kept a naval presence there since before a 2002 declaration of conduct in the South China Sea.
“As a treaty ally of the Republic of the Philippines, the United States urges China to refrain from further provocative behavior by allowing the Philippines to continue to maintain its presence at Second Thomas Shoal,” she added.
The incident was the latest in the South China Sea, where China claims a vast area that overlaps with several neighbors’ claims.
On March 9, China successfully turned away a similar resupply boat from the Philippines.
But despite, or because of, China’s provocative acts at sea, Malacanang said it has received more statements of support from international groups.
“There are other international bodies that are providing support such as the European Union and the European community. So we will just continue to rely on expressions, manifestations and demonstrations of international solidarity,” Presidential Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr. said also on Tuesday.
He noted that besides the “willingness on the part of the affected member nations to concretely spell out the parameters for addressing the issues in the South China Sea or in the West Philippine Sea,” Washington’s statement calling on Beijing to “refrain from provocative actions in the South China Sea” was a welcome development.
“We are also rallying our people to be cognizant of the important national interest that is at stake,” Coloma said.
In the light of the US government’s statement of support, the Palace official said President Benigno Aquino 3rd and US President Barack Obama are most likely to discuss security issues on the West Philippine Sea during the latter’s visit to Manila this month.
“Defense and security will definitely be a topic in the talks between President Aquino and President Obama. And when you talk of this topic, the most relevant issue that can be discussed would be the West Philippine Sea. So, it is entirely within the realm of possibility,” Coloma told reporters.
Besides the sea disputes, he said the two leaders are also likely to tackle the planned rotational presence of American troops in Philippine military camps.
“There are other issues that will be tackled since what is involved here is strategic partnership between two countries,” Coloma added.
He explained that there are several avenues for multilateral action, one of which is the Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), where leaders have agreed to flesh out the decade-old declaration of the Code of Conduct.
Another option is arbitration, as shown by the Philippines’ filing a memorial or memorandum before the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea.
“Our claims [to]the territories in the West Philippine Sea are sufficiently amplified and justified in our filing of the memorial,” Coloma said.
“We are doing what is needed. We are doing what we are capable of doing in terms of the actual conditions obtaining the West Philippine Sea,” he added.
Coloma stressed that all the steps the government had taken were “in consonance with the policy of pursuing our position in a peaceful and democratic manner while enjoining the international community to join cause with us in asserting the primacy of the rule of law.”
Chinese state media also on Tuesday accused the Philippines of violating morality and international law by seeking help from the United Nations.
Manila over the weekend asked a UN tribunal to rule on Beijing’s claims over most of the South China Sea, submitting nearly 4,000 pages of evidence to back up its case.
It argued that the Chinese stance is illegal under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), and interferes with the Philippines’ sovereign rights to its continental shelf.
Both countries are signatories to Unclos, but Beijing argues that its provisions do not apply to the row.
In a commentary, the People’s Daily, the official mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, denounced Manila’s move.
“The act of the Philippine side is against the international law and the historical truth as well as against morality and basic rules of international relations,” it said.
Manila had “provoked China” by going to “so-called international arbitration, a move that is both illegal and unreasonable” and “an act lacking credibility,” it added.
The commentary was reported in English by the official news agency Xinhua, often an indication that authorities want it to reach a wider audience.
China — which is vastly more powerful than any of the several countries it has disputes with in the strategically significant waters — prefers to negotiate with them individually, rather than in international forums.
“The Philippines attempted to solicit international sympathy through disguising itself as a small and weak country,” the commentary said.
Manila was attempting “to legalize its invasion of Chinese islands through the arbitration,” it added.
Aquino vowed on Monday to press ahead with the legal appeal.
“We are not here to challenge China, to provoke them into any action, but I do believe that they should recognize we also have the right to defend our own interests,” he told reporters.
The United States has been warning China against taking more drastic action in the South China Sea after it declared an air defense identification zone in November over much of the East China Sea, including islands administered by Japan.
A recent standoff between Filipino soldiers and the Chinese Coast Guard last week will not scare the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) from maintaining its presence at Ayungin Shoal.
AFP chief Gen. Emmanuel Bautista also on Tuesday said the military will continue to rotate and resupply its troops manning the BRP Sierra Madre every five months.
The Sierra Madre was intentionally grounded in the shoal in 1999 to mark the Philippines’ territorial claim after the Chinese built military structures in at least six islands situated well inside the Kalayaan Island Group, which is part of Palawan province.
Bautista said that whatever counter-action the Chinese will take, “we will stand our ground, we will assert our sovereignty, our rights.”
“We will be ready with any consequences. The fact that we pursued with our case that means that we’ll be prepared to suffer any consequences of that,” he added.
Lawmakers also slammed China for its “double-talk”, noting that while Beijing was calling for restraint in Crimea, it was illegally blocking Philippine ships.
WITH LLANESCA T. PANTI AND WILLIAM B. DEPASUPIL AND AFP