In his keynote speech at the summit of the Asia-Pacific Council of American Chambers on March 21, Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario did not mince words when he warned:
“Without regard for the rights of its neighbors, China has employed its naval and maritime vessels in a coercive manner, in gross violation of international law, to drive away fishermen from traditional fishing grounds, to intimidate its neighbors, to prevent exploitation of resources, and to prevent us from enforcing our own exclusive economic zones or EEZs.
“China’s basic blueprint is to unilaterally impose its so-called nine-dash line as a basis for claiming sovereignty over the whole of the South China Sea. If Beijing succeeds, it will turn one of the most strategically vital international bodies into a Chinese lake.”
How would this transformation affect the Philippines?
“Let me tell you what this expansionist Chinese strategy, through its nine-dash line claim, would do to the Philippines and other countries,” Del Rosario explained. “We would, in the South China Sea, lose our EEZs and our Continental Shelves which have been provided for our benefit by the Unclos (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea).”
He cited China’s other aggressive infractions: “Beijing has accelerated provocations to project its sovereignty into the East China and South China Sea. These include the proclamation of an Air Defense Identification Zone in the East China Sea with the same threat for the South China Sea, the enactment of exclusionary fisheries regulations in the South China Sea, and its continuing presence in our own EEZ.”
The Philippines’ response to evolving “the complex situation” in the South China Sea “is driven by values that are at the core of our principled foreign policy ― freedom, democracy, the rule of law, and the peaceful settlement of disputes” ― values that are falling on deaf ears in China which, for generations, have been ruled by authoritarian regimes.
When Del Rosario said the Philippines was seeking “not just any kind of resolution but a just and durable solution, grounded in international law,” one can be certain that the Chinese did not understand what he was talking about. It seemed to be a futile dialogue between the deaf and the dumb. In less elegant language, the foreign secretary reduced the Philippines’ “principled stance of doing right” to what the President of the republic articulated in five words: “What is ours is ours.”
Unfazed by China’s refusal to participate in the process of submitting the dispute to arbitration by the United Nations, Del Rosario said in his speech to the chambers of commerce that the Philippines is fully committed to submitting its memorial, or written pleading, to the U.N. Arbitral Tribunal by March 30 and to pushing the arbitration “to its logical conclusion.”
China has warned Vietnam against joining the arbitration case. But according to Reuters, Carl Thayer, a South China Sea expert at the Australian Defense Force Academy in Canberra, said he was told by Vietnamese officials in Hanoi that Vietnam “has so far stood up to (Chinese) pressure and clearly reserves the right to take any step if it feels its national interests are at stake.”
This means the Philippines is not alone in pursuing its arbitration option. Also according to Reuters, Manila’s five U.S. and British lawyers are finalizing submissions to show that China’s “nine-dash line” claim is invalid under the Unclos.
Reuters also quotes the Philippines’ lead counsel, Paul Reichler, a Washington-based lawyer with the firm Foley Hoag, as saying that the arbitration tribunal has adopted rules that effectively allow other states to apply to intervene.
On Feb. 6, Reuters reported from Washington that the United States had growing concerns that China’s maritime claims in the disputed area “are an effort to gain creeping control of oceans in the Asia-Pacific region.”
It reported that in a congressional testimony in February, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Denny Russel said that China’s vague claims had “created uncertainty, insecurity and instability” among its neighbors.
Russel also said that while America does not take sides in disputes, it has an interest in seeing maritime disputes resolved peacefully, and has also stepped up its military presence in the region as part of a strategic “pivot” to Asia.
In his speech, Del Rosario said the United States “must remain an active player in bolstering the regional architecture for stability, security and development.”
Through such regional institutions as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Asean Defense Ministers Meeting Plus, Asean Regional Forum, and East Asia Summit, America can continue to play a positive role. This role is bolstered by all elements of American power, including “strong and principled diplomacy,” Del Rosario said.
“We welcome Washington’s rebalance strategy to refocus and reinforce America’s presence in the region. Despite budgetary constraints and the pull of other global commitments, it is here in Asia-Pacific where America must clearly advance its priorities.”
These words were spoken as U.S. President Barack Obama prepares to undertake his first visit to the Philippines in April, to cement and deepen Philippine-U.S. relations amid intensifying tensions between China and its smaller and weaker neighbors over disputed maritime claims in the region. Specifically, the two longtime allies in the Asia-Pacific are negotiating an Agreement on Enhanced Defense Cooperation. The agreement would allow expanded U.S. military presence in Philippine bases.
By Amando Doronilla
Amando Doronilla is a columnist for The Philippine Daily Inquirer. ― Ed.
(Philippine Daily Inquirer)
(Asia News Network)