A Palace spokesperson made it clear that Manila was not about to surrender areas in the South China Sea it claims to be part of the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone and refers to as the West Philippine Sea, a day after China claimed that the Philippines was trying to legalize its occupation of islands in the disputed area by going to the United Nations International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea or ITLOS.
“What’s our position when it comes to Bajo de Masinloc? That’s ours. And we will continue to exercise sovereignty over our territory,” said Palace spokeswoman Abigail Valte Valte in a radio interview.
Valte reminded China that the Aquino administration had already filed the case in the ITLOS, “and we are waiting for developments on that.”
When asked by phone if the Philippine government was still hoping that China would change its mind and accede to an arbitration process by a third party, Valte said, “It is the position of the Philippine government that taking the case before the arbitral tribunal is well within the framework we have chosen to adopt, which is a rules-based approach.”
Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario, for his part, accused Beijing of occupying Bajo de Masinloc, one of the other names for the Scarbourough Shoal, an outcropping of rocks in a shallow section of the West Philippine Sea.
“The Chinese have tried to establish a de facto occupation of Bajo de Masinloc. When we last checked, I think they had two maritime surveillance vessels there, and then they had a fisheries law enforcement boat. So they have three vessels there,” he said in a briefing at the Palace Friday.
He said this prompted the government to avail itself of the option of seeking international arbitration under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
“That train has left the station, and we are trying to proceed with that. We believe that that will yield the results that we’re after in terms of providing a durable solution. Any solution that we would have come up with, short of a solution that is derived from the [UNCLOS], I think, at best, would be a transactional solution, and not a durable one,” said Del Rosario.
He said the UN arbitral tribunal might begin deliberations on the merits of the Philippine case by July, and that the deliberations would proceed even without the participation of China.
Del Rosario said the tribunal’s decision would be “final and unappealable.”
Del Rosario did not make it a secret that the government of President Aquino was counting on Vietnam and the rest of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations for support in the country’s decision to seek international arbitration.
“And we also are looking at the solidity and the very good working arrangements that we have in terms of our cooperation on maritime security. We are trying to see how that can be improved,” he said, referring to warming bilateral relations between the Philippines and Vietnam, which has its own territorial dispute with China over the Paracel islands in the South China Sea.
“We’re happy about our cooperation, as I said, on the South China Sea. We received the compliments of Vietnam… their agreement [with our decision] in terms of what we’re trying to do, the processes that we’ve adopted. And they’re fully on board in terms of cooperating with us. We agreed on how well we are doing in terms of other regional cooperation, and essentially that was it,” said Del Rosario.
During his two-day attendance at the 22nd Asean summit in Brunei early this week, President Aquino held bilateral talks with Vietnam Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung.
Both leaders were upbeat over “the progress of economic relations” between the two countries as they agreed to “further enhance” and strengthen relations, said the Palace.
Told that Filipino fishermen were now barred from entering Bajo de Masinloc by Chinese authorities, he said: “We have to take a position that we need to move in concert with what our legal advisers are able to provide us in terms of guidance. And right now, they believe that we should give priority to the arbitration case.”