MANILA, Philippines—Noting it is a work in progress, the Department of Foreign Affairs on Monday said the Philippines has been mobilizing support of its allies in the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) to counter Chinese intrusion in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
Raul Hernandez, the DFA spokesman, recalled that during the Asean Summit held early this month in Cambodia, “we asked Asean to take the lead in resolving the West Philippine Sea issue, and to bring the Spratlys claimants together towards a rules-based, multilateral and peaceful resolution of the issue.”
“We also emphasized at the summit the centrality of Asean with respect to the drafting of the Code of Conduct for the South China Sea incorporating key elements to include a dispute settlement mechanism and an administrative structure to implement them,” Hernandez told the Inquirer.
But Asean member-states “need to agree themselves first on the draft before talking to China,” he said.
Aside from the Philippines, Asean also groups Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar (formerly Burma), Laos, Cambodia and Brunei Darussalam.
Four Asean members—the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei—are among the Spratlys claimants, along with China and Taiwan.
Hernandez pointed out that “our regional and international partners, including the United States, our treaty ally, are assisting us upgrade our capabilities and build a minimum credible defense posture for us to be able to protect our territorial sovereignty and maritime jurisdiction.”
At the Asean Summit in Phnom Penh, Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario also reiterated that the Philippines adhered to the primacy of international law in resolving territorial disputes in the West Philippine Sea.
Speaking at the Asean foreign ministers’ meeting, Del Rosario said abiding by the rules set by the United Nations Convention on the law of the Sea is the legitimate way of dealing with conflicting and overlapping claims in the Spratly group of islands.
At the same time, he reaffirmed the Philippines’ commitment to the maintenance of peace and stability in the region.
The DFA brushed aside media reports about worsening relations with Beijing, stressing that the West Philippine Sea dispute was “not the sum total of Philippines-China relations.”
Hernandez said, “We have deep and broad relations with China, and we are committed to raise this to the next higher level.”
He added the more than three decades of diplomatic ties with the regional power “have benefited both our countries and peoples.”
On Sunday, Senator Joker Arroyo urged the Aquino administration to mobilize support of its Asean allies against Chinese incursions on Philippine territory.
Arroyo said Asean failed to issue even a “resolution of concern or sympathy” during the standoff with China over the Scarborough Shoal, which Manila calls Panatag Shoal.
According to the lawmaker, “we should have a diplomatic offensive. (Asean member-states) have been meeting. But when one of members is threatened, they have not even issued a stand.”
Arroyo said it was high time the Philippines saw Asean, of which Manila is a founding member, as the main battleground to resolve diplomatically conflicting territorial claims in the West Philippine Sea.
He was wary the Spratlys and the Scarborough Shoal could go the way of Sabah, which was taken over by Malaysia although it formed part of the territory of the Sultanate of Sulu prior to the formation of the Malaysian Federation in 1963.
Last weekend, Sen. Gregorio Honasan said that next time China throws its weight in the West Philippine Sea, Asean should automatically weigh in.
Honasan said a better course of action would be for the government to immediately report incursions to Asean, the US, or the United Nations. The Philippines’ allies should take immediate action, he said.