THE Philippines will take the chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) this year but the country will not raise the ruling of an international arbitral tribunal against China among its fellow Asean members, Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. said Tuesday.
“I can’t see the point,” Yasay said.
The Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration last year nullified China’s excessive claims in the contested waters and upheld the Philippines’ rights to areas within its 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
When Laos was the chairman of Asean last year, it did not issue a statement of support on the decision of the UN-backed court. The Philippines also did not assert it following the stance of President Rodrigo Duterte.
With China’s rejection of the award, Yasay maintained that no one could implement the ruling, not even the Asean.
“The PCA arbitral ruling on the South China Sea is final and binding only between the parties. No discussion of the ruling by Asean is going to change it or result in its implementation without the use of force except through our peaceful bilateral engagements with China,” he said.
“Indeed, because the arbitral tribunal has no enforcement power, the only remaining issue is on its implementation that the Philippines and China have agreed to defer until both parties are ready with a solution without eroding or compromising their respective claims,” Yasay added.
Yasay said the Philippines has already got an assurance from China that there will be no construction or militarization at Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal, adding that the reported installation of weapons at Panganiban (Mischief) Reef was done before Duterte took office
China claims over nearly the entire South China Sea, believed to have huge deposits of oil and gas, and has transformed submerged reefs into military outposts equipped with radars, landing strips and huge buildings.
“We will not hesitate to take appropriate action should that happen [again],” Yasay said, adding though that “it is not our intention to assert ourselves with force to seek its dismantling.”
“Any Asean member may also raise this militarization concern in the South China Sea as a separate issue distinct from the arbitral ruling. However, only by unanimous consensus can the regional group agree to place this in the agenda,” Yasay said.
Analysts however said that the arbitration case is relevant to all, including the nine other Asean members, “because it concerns China’s claims over much of international sea lines of communications, not to mention the ecological and military consequences of its massive reclamation and island building activities,” analyst Richard Javad Heydarian said.
He added that the Philippines, as Asean chairman, has the power to enforce its will and pressure China to respect the tribunal ruling.
“The Asean chairman’s statement (Duterte this year) and annual host (Philippines this year) have the prerogative to shape the regional agenda along their preferred concerns. Aside from the joint statement, not everything requires ‘consensus’ as Yasay puts it,” Heydarian explained.
Professor Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines’ Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, noted that the arbitral award has direct implications on Asean’s position on jurisdiction in the South China Sea.