MANILA, Philippines—China is turning the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) into “one country’s lake,” Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said on Tuesday, pressing Manila’s effort to roll back Beijing’s expansive claims in the strategic waterway.
Speaking before an experts’ roundtable on maritime security in Brussels, Belgium, Del Rosario said China’s assertion of ownership over almost all of the sea could restrict freedom of navigation in sea-lanes critical to global trade.
Del Rosario also reiterated the Philippines’ bid for a peaceful resolution to its territorial dispute with China in the West Philippine Sea by bringing it to the United Nations for arbitration.
Citing China’s “overwhelming naval and maritime presence far beyond its mainland shores,” Del Rosario accused Beijing of “raising regional tensions” in the sea, a clear reference to incursions of Chinese vessels into shoals and islets well within the Philippines’ 360-kilometer exclusive economic zone.
China’s “unilateral coercive actions,” Del Rosario said, also seemed to be an assertion of sovereignty over the territories within Beijing’s self-proclaimed “nine-dash line,” which encompasses most of the sea, including waters within the economic exclusion zones of Southeast Asian nations.
Del Rosario again criticized China for its nine-dash claim in the sea, saying the delineation is “extremely close to the coasts of other littoral states.”
“Arbitrary claims to maritime territory could also be arbitrarily invoked to regulate passage of ships through the large swath of maritime areas the nine-dash line encloses. On its face, this expansive claim could turn an international body of water into a lake of one nation,” Del Rosario warned his audience, which included members of the European Parliament, the diplomatic corps, Belgian government and European Union (EU) officials and European think tanks.
Besides the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan claim territories in the West Philippine Sea, where islets, atolls and reefs are believed to be sitting on vast deposits of oil and gas.
Del Rosario’s remarks in Brussels echoed statements he made on June 30 before foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and dialogue partners in Brunei, where he blasted China for its “massive military buildup” in the West Philippine Sea.
After disappearing for a few days last week, Chinese ships have returned to Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal), a rich fishing ground west of Zambales within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.
Three Chinese vessels have also converged on Ayungin Shoal (Second Thomas Shoal) in the Philippines’ part of the Spratly archipelago in the middle of the West Philippine Sea.
Del Rosario touched on other regional security concerns such as the dispute between China and Japan over a group of islands in the East China Sea and tensions on the Korean Peninsula, but he described the West Philippine Sea rivalry as “more complex.”
“We must manage the maritime territorial disputes that have come to recent prominence in the East and South China Seas. These constitute the major security issues in the region’s seas. The overlapping multiple disputes in the South China Sea are the more complex, involving the legal rights of several littoral states over territories, maritime zones, fishing grounds, natural resource areas, transport and other uses of the sea,” Del Rosario said.
“We cannot afford to ignore these issues. Sweeping them under the rug may not work indefinitely. At some point, we must focus on their resolution, or at the very least, on their management in order to preempt the escalation of tensions,” Del Rosario said.
He underscored the West Philippine Sea’s importance to Europe, pointing out that the sea is a gateway to Asia.
“The importance of the South China Sea in European trade cannot be overemphasized. In fact, the opening of maritime trade routes spanning Europe, Asia and the Americas ushered in the modern world. The first great era of globalization was driven by trade in the age of sail,” he said.
“Ensuring the unfettered access of ships and maritime commerce through the region is therefore of interest not only to Asia and Europe, but to the international community as well,” he said.
Del Rosario explained the Philippines’ decision to seek UN arbitration to resolve its territorial dispute with China, saying China’s “unilateral claim … must pass the bar of international law and conform in particular to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos).”
The Philippines invoked Unclos in seeking UN arbitration to invalidate China’s nine-dash-line claim and halt its incursions into the country’s established maritime boundaries in the disputed waters.
China has refused to take part in the proceedings, but the process is continuing under Unclos provisions.
“The Philippines had exhausted almost all political and diplomatic avenues for a peaceful negotiated settlement of its maritime dispute with China. Our last resort therefore when confronted with increasing incursions into our territory was to utilize the legal track, which also covered the management of disputes,” Del Rosario said.
In March, the European Parliament expressed support for the Philippines’ peaceful approach to solving its territorial dispute with China, a position its members reiterated to Del Rosario during their meeting on Tuesday.
During his three-day visit to Belgium, Del Rosario also secured the support of European Council President Herman Van Rompuy in their first meeting on July 8.
The council is the EU’s policy-making body.
The Department of Foreign Affairs said Van Rompuy called the Philippines’ arbitration bid “the right path to take” in seeking a legal remedy against China.
Amid the pending arbitration, the Philippines continues to seek a dialogue with China in hopes of settling the maritime dispute.
On the sidelines of the Asean ministerial meeting in Brunei, Del Rosario invited Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi for “consultations” in Manila after “testy exchanges” between them during a closed session.
He said Wang told him that he would consider his invitation.
Toward the close of the meeting, China agreed to open “formal consultations” with Asean on a proposed code of conduct in the West Philippine Sea.
The consultations will be held in Beijing in September.