BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN, Brunei—The Philippines will not drop its case against China over claims to the South China Sea even if China were to pull out its surveillance ships from the Scarborough Shoal, President Aquino said Wednesday night.
“That can’t be withdrawn,’’ the President told reporters in a chat at the Philippine Embassy here after the opening of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit Wednesday night. He said any deal for withdrawal would be susceptible to a “change in mood’’ later on.
Aquino stressed that the Philippines filed the notification and claim with the United Nations precisely to clarify its maritime borders with China under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos).
“What we’re after here is clarification for both parties. I don’t want to heighten the tension by demanding that they should respond to this. This is a process; we have to go to all the avenues open for all of us to finally come up with something that is definitive: what are your entitlements, what are your obligations,’’ he said.
The government filed the claim, asking the UN to compel China to respect the Philippines’ rights to explore and exploit resources within its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and continental shelf as declared under Unclos.
It asked the international body to declare that the Philippines is entitled, as provided for by Unclos, to “12 nautical miles of territorial sea, 200 nautical miles of EEZ and established boundaries of its continental shelf from the baselines.’’
The Philippines ratified the 1982 convention in 1984 and China in 1996, but the two countries have conflicting interpretations of its provisions, especially on the scope of the EEZ.
China has kept three ships at the Scarborough Shoal despite earlier agreement between the two countries to pull out after last year’s tense standoff.
Aquino said the summit opened on a good note after Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah of Brunei raised the maritime dispute in the South China Sea, and called for a “calm and peaceful resolution’’ of the matter in the post-dinner meeting.
“I think it really went well. We were able to state our points with regard to arbitration and with regard to the COC (code of conduct),’’ he said, recalling that nobody intervened when the leaders discussed the need for a code of conduct with China in the South China Sea.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen stalled moves by claimant countries to have the conflict mentioned in last year’s summit in Phnom Penh.
Putting the code of conduct high on the agenda of the summit was a “step in the right direction,’’ Aquino said, noting that the regional bloc has been tackling it for the last 10 years.
“We should really be thankful that the whole of the Asean is willing to discuss this instead of, you know, putting it on the backburner. That, I think, is already a help,’’ he said.
Aquino said a consensus might be reached to “push the matter forward to really define everybody’s entitlements and obligations.’’
“Instead of being put on a very low priority, it has been put in effect – not in a dominant position – but it is one of the priority areas and nobody has objected, and everybody was listening and discussing it. So that, I think, is a step in the right direction,’’ he said.
Asean hoped to reach a consensus on the draft code of conduct this year that would replace the Declaration of the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, a 2002 non-aggression pact that has failed to stop conflicts in the international waterway, and present this to China.
Claimant-countries have been pushing for this code, but China has balked at it, claiming the time wasn’t ripe for it and preferring to negotiate with individual claimants.
The entire South China Sea is being claimed by China and in parts by the Philippines, Brunei, Vietnam and Malaysia and Taiwan.
Aquino said: “China is not a small entity, whether in the global economic field, in the military field, in population, etc. And I really think that Asean is already tackling the Code of Conduct moving forward after, again, 10 years—going to 11—is a step in the right direction. And we should be thankful that it is moving in that direction.’’