Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario on Thursday denounced Chinese “duplicity” and “intimidation” in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), souring the mood at a Southeast Asian foreign ministers’ conference designed to soothe tensions.
“If Philippine sovereignty and jurisdiction can be denigrated by a powerful country through pressure, duplicity, intimidation and the threat of the use of force, the international community should be concerned about the behavior,” Del Rosario told the annual ministerial meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) in the Cambodian
capital of Phnom Penh, according to an official statement.
Del Rosario was referring to a recent standoff between Chinese and Philippine ships at a rocky outcrop called Scarborough Shoal (Panatag Shoal), which is claimed by both sides.
Stressing Asean needs to “speak with one voice,” US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton joined Del Rosario in urging Asean to take a common stand on the Scarborough dispute and on other Chinese incursions in the West Philippine Sea.
Clinton made the statement on Monday during an Asean-US meeting, which she and Del Rosario both chaired.
Threat to peace
Clinton issued the call for a unified Asean stand on the eve of her meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi on the sidelines of the Asean ministerial meeting.
Several Asian governments have expressed worry about China’s expansive maritime claims. Tensions have threatened to boil over, with a standoff between Chinese and Philippine ships and sharp disagreements between China and Vietnam.
At Thursday’s Asean ministerial meeting, Del Rosario said Beijing’s increasingly assertive stance in the West Philippine Sea posed a “threat to the peace and stability” in the Asia Pacific region.
“If left unchecked, the increasing tensions that is being generated in the process could further escalate into physical hostilities which no one wants,” Del Rosario said.
“This puts in greater jeopardy the remarkable economic dynamism of our region which was made possible by the relative peace and stability that prevailed in the past years.”
The Obama administration pressed Beijing to accept the proposed code of conduct for resolving territorial disputes.
The US mediation effort has faced resistance from China but has endeared Washington to once-hostile countries in Southeast Asia.
China claims virtually the entire West Philippine Sea and has created an entirely new city to administer it, sparking deep concern from rival claimants. The sea hosts about a third of the world’s cargo traffic, has rich fishing grounds and is believed to store vast oil and gas reserves.
At the Asean-US meeting, Clinton said it would be best for the regional bloc to “clearly outline its position” on the conflict over Scarborough.
Manila refers to the shoal variously as Panatag Shoal and Bajo de Masinloc, while Beijing calls it Huangyan Island. The shoal lies 240 kilometers off Zambales province.
“What might be a challenge today for some of the Asean members, if left unaddressed by all of Asean, could lead tomorrow to issues that may become problems for other Asean members,” Clinton warned, according to a press statement issued by the Department of Foreign Affairs in Manila.
Code of conduct
Clinton was obviously also referring to the tensions generated by the dispute over the Spratly Islands involving China, Taiwan and four Asean members—the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei. Asean also includes Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, Burma, Laos and Cambodia.
According to Clinton, Washington “looks to Asean and claimant states to provide leadership on this issue, and recognizes the important role of Asean to find consensus and advance a common Asean position.”
“Asean needs to meet its own goals and standards and be able to speak with one voice on issues facing the region,” she said, also urging the group to “complete a regional code of conduct in a timely fashion.”
Del Rosario said “the current situation in the West Philippine Sea deserves urgent attention from Asean because it has a direct impact on unimpeded commerce and freedom of navigation in the region.”
“The adherence of all countries in the region to a set of fair and transparent rules, as embodied in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, will generate greater mutual trust and respect in the region,” he said.
In April, Del Rosario asked Asean to take a stand on the Philippine dispute with China over Panatag Shoal and other Chinese incursions in the disputed sea.
In a text message to the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Del Rosario said “all, not just the Philippines, will ultimately be negatively affected if we do not take a stand.”
“Since the freedom of navigation and unimpeded commerce in the West Philippine Sea are of great importance to many nations, all should consider what China is endeavoring to do in the Scarborough Shoal in order to pursue its so-called full sovereign rights over the entire West Philippine Sea on the basis of a nine-dash line claim, using a historical record that’s clearly baseless,” Del Rosario pointed out.
The nine-dash claim is China’s delineation of its territory in the West Philippine Sea, with nine dashes on the map that enclose all of the Spratlys archipelago.
Closer US-China ties
On Thursday, sitting across from Yang Jiechi at a long table in a grand hall with chandeliers, Clinton stressed the different ways Washington and Beijing were cooperating. Yang spoke of building an even closer US-Chinese relationship.
Neither side spoke about the West Philippine Sea while reporters were allowed in the room.
“The United States has no territorial claims there and we do not take sides in disputes about territorial or maritime boundaries,” Clinton told the foreign ministers.
“But we do have an interest in freedom of navigation, the maintenance of peace and stability, respect for international law and unimpeded lawful commerce in the South China Sea,” she added.
Asian countries should “work collaboratively and diplomatically to resolve disputes without coercion, without intimidation, without threats and without use of force,” Clinton added.
Asean’s 10 members announced earlier this week that they had drafted a set of rules governing maritime rights and navigation, and procedures for when governments disagree. But China is not a member of the group and hasn’t agreed to anything.
A senior US administration official said Yang, in his discussion with Clinton, cautiously signaled China’s willingness to negotiate with other Asian nations on the code.
The talks could start as early as September, said the official, who briefed reporters on the meeting on condition of anonymity.
For the United States, the difficult diplomacy ahead could be a major test of the Obama administration’s efforts to “pivot” American power toward the world’s most populous continent.
Just speaking out on the subject already has helped the US deepen ties with Vietnam, and relations are warming with other governments in the region.
Fear of conflict
Many observers fear the complicated web of maritime disputes could spark a violent conflict.
The standoff between China and the Philippines in Panatag Shoal began in April when the Philippines accused Chinese fishermen of poaching in its exclusive economic zone. Both sides sent government ships to the area though both have since withdrawn the vessels. With a report from AFP and AP