US Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday pressed China and Southeast Asian nations to act on a proposed code of conduct in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) as Manila reiterated its protest against Beijing’s threat of a “counterstrike” and “militarization” of the strategic waterway.
Kerry, who arrived in Brunei for the expanded session of the 46th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) Ministerial Meeting, said the code of conduct would ease tensions caused by territorial disputes in the West Philippine Sea and reminded the region that the United States had national interests at stake in the disputes.
Kerry was speaking a day after China, following a sharp rebuke from the Philippines on Sunday for its “massive military buildup” in the West Philippine Sea, agreed to start “official consultations” with Asean on a code of conduct in the sea later this year.
While marking a move forward, the consultations are not seen as a major breakthrough in protracted efforts to bring China into a binding agreement over the energy-rich sea, where Beijing’s assertive claims have sparked rising tensions.
“We have a strong interest in the manner in which the disputes of the South China Sea are addressed, and in the conduct of the parties,” Kerry said in opening remarks at the expanded conference that now included the United States, China, Japan, Russia and other countries in the Asia-Pacific region.
“We very much hope to see progress soon on a substantive code of conduct in order to help ensure stability in this vital region,” Kerry said.
He attempted to ease concerns in Beijing that the US rebalancing of forces to Asia was aimed at countering China’s rising power.
“We have many goals. We have economic and security interests. But I want to emphasize, importantly, our actions are not intended to contain or to counterbalance any one country,” Kerry said.
China said in a joint statement with the 10-member Asean on Sunday that it agreed to hold “official consultations” on a proposed code of conduct governing naval actions at a meeting with Asean senior officials in China in September.
Accused by Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario earlier on Sunday of “increasing militarization” of the sea, China stopped short of saying that the meeting would mark the start of actual negotiations.
China has shown little urgency in initiating substantial talks on the proposed code.
Del Rosario gave a lukewarm response late on Sunday when asked about the significance of the proposed consultations.
“The agreement was that there will be a process that will be started with a meeting in China . . . I’d like to believe that China is earnest in terms of moving forward in this process,” Del Rosario said.
Besides the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan claim territories in the West Philippine Sea.
China claims nearly the entire the sea, including waters along the coasts of its Southeast Asian neighbors.
Vietnam and China have fought naval battles in the Paracel islands, while the Philippines has taken its dispute with China over Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal), a rich fishing ground west of Zambales province, to the United Nations for arbitration.
Most recently, the Philippines accused China of encroachment when three Chinese ships converged just 9 kilometers off Ayungin Shoal (Second Thomas Shoal) in the Spratly archipelago, where Manila maintains a token military presence.
Two weeks ago, the Philippines sent fresh troops and supplies to Ayungin, drawing a warning from Beijing last week through People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party.
In a front-page commentary, People’s Daily warned that a “counterstrike” against the Philippines was inevitable if it continued to provoke China in the West Philippine Sea.
Speaking at the opening of the Asean security forum on Sunday, Del Rosario said China’s “increasing militarization” of Panatag Shoal and Ayungin Shoal was a violation of a “declaration of conduct” in the sea that China signed with Asean in 2002, agreeing not to cause tensions in the area.
Del Rosario said China’s persistent “destabilizing actions” in the sea posed “serious challenges for the region.”
In a talk with reporters after the security forum, Del Rosario criticized the People’s Daily statement about a counterstrike as “irresponsible.”
“We condemn any threats of use of force,” Del Rosario said.
On Monday, Raul Hernandez, spokesman for the Department of Foreign Affairs, asserted the Philippines’ call for a legal and peaceful approach to resolving territorial disputes in the West Philippine Sea.
“That language (about a counterstrike) is uncalled for,” Hernandez told reporters.
“We have always been consistent with our position [on] the West Philippine Sea [dispute]. We continue to push for a peaceful and rules-based solution to the dispute in accord with international law, specifically the Unclos (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea), [through] arbitral proceedings and the early conclusion of the code of conduct,” he said.
Referring to Del Rosario’s condemnation of China’s military actions in the West Philippine Sea, Hernandez said the Philippines considered China’s intrusions into Philippine territory “illegal and not valid [under] international law.”
Hernandez emphasized that Panatag Shoal and Ayungin Shoal are “integral parts” of Philippine territory.
Asked whether China had already responded to the Philippines’ protest against the presence of Chinese vessels at the two shoals, Hernandez said, “We are still talking with them regarding [our call that] they have to respect our maritime zones.”
Hernandez said China’s agreeing to start “official consultations” with Asean on the proposed code of conduct was a “welcome decision” of Beijing.
On Sunday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi stressed that any progress on agreeing on the new framework would depend on countries following the confidence-building “declaration of conduct.”
Beijing and Manila accuse each other of violating that declaration.