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China wants PH to drop UN suit

/ 12:52 AM June 09, 2016

Faced with a setback in a United Nations arbitral court, China on Wednesday urged the Philippines to drop its legal tack and return to bilateral negotiation to settle their territorial dispute in the South China Sea.

China did not say, however, whether it would stop building artificial islands in the Spratly archipelago or whether it would withdraw from Panatag Shoal, which it seized from the Philippines in 2012 after a two-month standoff with the Philippine Navy, to encourage negotiations.

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It was China’s seizure of Panatag Shoal, internationally known as Scarborough Shoal, that forced the Philippines to challenge China’s claim to almost all of the 3.5-million-square-kilometer South China Sea in the UN arbitration court in 2013.

The Philippines asked the court to invalidate China’s sweeping claims and declare its right to exploit resources in waters within its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) be honored.

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Ruling coming soon

China has refused to take part in the proceedings, but the court has heard the case and is expected to hand down a ruling in the coming weeks.

Expecting the ruling to go against it, China on Wednesday accused the Philippines of ignoring requests for dialogue about their dispute.

“China urges the Philippines to immediately cease its wrongful conduct of pushing forward the arbitral proceedings, and return to the right path of settling the relevant disputes in the South China Sea through bilateral negotiation with China,” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in a statement posted on his ministry’s website.

The statement, released in both Chinese and English, said the two countries agreed in 1995 to settle disputes in the South China Sea “in a peaceful and friendly manner through consultations on the basis of equity and mutual respect.”

China and the Philippines have held many rounds of talks on the proper management of maritime disputes, though they have had no negotiations designed to settle the actual disputes in the South China Sea, the Chinese foreign ministry said.

“China has on a number of occasions proposed with the Philippines the establishment of a China-Philippines regular consultation mechanism on maritime issues; however, to date, there has never been any response from the Philippine side,” it said.

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The ministry did not specify how such consultations would be different from the numerous exchanges the countries have had on the dispute.

Reef grabbing

It blamed the Philippines for the dramatic worsening in the two countries’ relations and in  peace and stability in the South China Sea, but did not mention its actions that forced Manila to go to the United Nations for a peaceful settlement of the dispute.

The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) declined to comment.

A department official familiar with the arbitration case said Manila was expecting the tribunal to hand down a ruling this month and it would rather remain quiet until then.

In 1995, despite its proposal for talks, China seized Panganiban Reef (Mischief Reef), a reef 250 km west of Palawan province, and developed it into a shelter purportedly for fishermen.

The Philippines protested China’s actions and when Beijing went on developing Mischief Reef, Manila grounded a rusting hospital ship on Ayungin Shoal (Second Thomas Shoal) to mark Philippine territory in the Spratly archipelago.

A small Marine garrison is stationed on the vessel, the BRP Sierra Madre, which is restocked regularly using private supply ships protected by US warplanes.

Competing claims

Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan have competing claims in the South China Sea, and they could benefit from the ruling of the UN arbitral court.

China, however, has been building artificial islands in the Spratly archipelago to bolster its claim to the strategic waterway, which is crisscrossed by vital sea-lanes through which about $5 trillion in global shipborne trade passes every year and where islets, reefs and atolls are believed to be sitting atop vast energy reserves.

Although saying it is not taking sides in the disputes, the United States has challenged China’s claims, sending warships and spy planes near the artificial islands in so-called freedom of navigation operations.

At the end of security talks in Beijing on Tuesday, China told the United States it should play a constructive role in safeguarding peace in the South China Sea, as US Secretary of State John Kerry called for talks and a peaceful resolution.

Comments both by Kerry and his Chinese counterpart, State Councilor Yang Jiechi, suggested that their governments remained far apart on the South China Sea disputes.

“I reiterated America’s fundamental support for negotiations, and a peaceful resolution based on the rule of law, as well as, obviously, our concern about any unilateral steps by anyone, whichever country, to alter the status quo,” Kerry said during a joint appearance with Chinese officials in the Great Hall of the People.

Yang, who steers Chinese foreign policy and is senior to the foreign minister, said China remained adamantly opposed to an arbitration case brought by the Philippines to assert its claims in the South China Sea.

“This has not changed and will not change,” Yang said, repeating China’s position that it is willing to negotiate over the disputes, but only with each individual country holding a rival claim, rather than collectively.

No enforcement powers

Also on Tuesday, Australian security policy expert Christopher Roberts said the UN court’s ruling was expected to be in favor of the Philippines, but Manila needed its allies and friends to help enforce the ruling.

The UN arbitral court has no powers to enforce its rulings, which have been ignored not a few times.

Roberts, speaking at the South China Sea forum at the DFA, said a bilateral approach might not work to temper the “very disconcerting and assertive behavior of China” in the settlement of disputes.

President-elect Rodrigo Duterte has said he is open to bilateral negotiations with China to solve the dispute, but is waiting for the UN tribunal’s ruling.

“China is the elephant in the room. Taking a multilayered approach at diplomatic level could bring a collection of willing states to signal to China that there are the options available and it should decide on both economic and political gains and losses,” Roberts said in an interview after the forum.

Wang, in the foreign ministry statement, said China “never accepts any recourse to third-party settlement, or any means of dispute settlement that is imposed on it.”

He insisted that territorial sovereignty issues were not subject to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

“It is not only the Chinese government’s consistent policy, but also a clear agreement reached between China and the Philippines, to settle their relevant disputes in the South China Sea through negotiation,” Wang said. With reports from the wires

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