Citing the importance of peace and stability in Asia-Pacific region, the United States has thrown its full support behind the Philippines’ bid for arbitration in the United Nations to settle a territorial dispute with China in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
In remarks before talks with Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario in Washington on Tuesday, US Secretary of State John Kerry reiterated his government’s support for a code of conduct in the West Philippine Sea, home to vital sea lanes and islands believed to be sitting on vast energy and mineral reserves.
“The Philippines is one of our five Asia-Pacific allies and a very, very important relationship at this point in time when there are tensions over the South China Sea, where we support a code of conduct, and we are deeply concerned [about] some of those tensions and would like to see it worked out through a process of arbitration,” Kerry told reporters at the US Department of State. A transcript of his remarks was posted on the department’s website.
The West Philippine Sea dispute has long been a matter of keen interest for Kerry who, as senator, “was a moving force” behind a resolution in the US Senate seeking a peaceful settlement of disputes in those waters, Del Rosario said after his meeting with the new top US diplomat.
Kerry replaced former State Secretary Hillary Clinton, who left the Department of State at the start of the second term of the administration of President Barack Obama in February.
Del Rosario said Kerry discussed US support for the arbitration proceedings during their meeting and that Kerry “emphasized the importance the US gives to maintaining peace and stability in the area.”
“More importantly, Secretary Kerry assured me that the US is committed to supporting the efforts of the Philippines to settle the disputes peacefully and in accordance with the rule of law,” Del Rosario said in a statement released separately by the Department of Foreign Affairs.
China not participating
China has refused to take part in the arbitration and dismissed the Philippines’ claims in the West Philippine Sea as full of historical errors and based on a wrong interpretation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos).
Philippine officials say, however, that the arbitration can proceed even without China’s participation.
While its rulings are binding on the parties concerned, the UN arbitral tribunal has no powers to enforce them.
Del Rosario’s meeting with Kerry was the first for the two officials since the former Democratic presidential challenger’s appointment to the US Department of State in February.
Del Rosario said he explained to Kerry the importance of the arbitration to peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region in particular and to the effectiveness of international law in general.
“I stressed that we are committed to seeing this arbitration through. There should be no confusion or any doubts about our resolve,” he added.
Filed in January, the Philippine legal action seeks to stop Chinese incursions into parts of the West Philippine Sea that are within established Philippine maritime boundaries and hopes to nullify China’s claim to nearly the entire sea, including parts within the maritime borders of some countries in the region.
In refusing to take part in the arbitration, China asserted its “indisputable sovereignty” over the waters and insisted that the dispute may only be resolved through direct negotiations.
Del Rosario said he and Kerry agreed to press for a peaceful resolution to the maritime dispute when ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) meet in Brunei later this month.
Asean failed to issue a joint statement after a ministerial meeting in Phnom Penh last year due to disagreements over how the bloc should handle China on the maritime issue.
“We agreed to work closely together, particularly in the coming Asean ministerial and summit meetings to maintain peace in the area and to resolve the disputes through peaceful means and in accordance with the rule of law,” Del Rosario said.
Del Rosario and Kerry also committed to furthering the strategic defense partnership between the Philippines and the US in the face of “current challenges to the peace and stability of East Asia.”
“Our ability to deter threats or provocations is an important part of this cooperation. In this context, we discussed our joint efforts to build the capacity of the Philippines to defend its territory and people. We also exchanged views on the implementation of our agreed policy of increased rotational presence and enhanced exercises,” Del Rosario said.
He said he and Kerry also agreed to continue Philippine-US cooperation during times of natural disasters, particularly in the areas of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.