A milestone decision—Yasay
The Philippines told Asian and European leaders on Friday that it considered a recent ruling by a UN-backed arbitral tribunal invalidating China’s claims in the South China Sea as a “milestone decision” as it called on them for support to help bring a peaceful solution to the raging dispute.
Speaking at the 11th Asia-Europe Meeting (Asem) in Mongolia, Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay stressed that while the arbitral tribunal’s decision favored the Philippines, Manila was also now prepared to move forward with Beijing to ease tensions.
China has strongly rejected the decision, and has said that Asem was not the right venue for the Philippines to raise the issue. It also reacted angrily to calls by Western countries for it to abide by the decision.
“The Philippines strongly affirms its respect for this milestone decision as an important contribution to the ongoing efforts in addressing disputes in the [South China Sea],” Yasay said before 53 world leaders. “We call on all parties to exercise restraint and sobriety.”
He said the Philippines was committed to “pursue the peaceful resolution and management of disputes” in the South China Sea, where Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam also have overlapping claims.
“At the same time we attach great importance to measures that will restore trust and confidence among parties in the region. The Philippines shall continue to engage concerned parties to finding ways to reduce regional tensions and to build greater trust and confidence,” Yasay said.
“In this regard, the Philippines will continue fostering mutually beneficial relations with all nations,” he said.
The government has been very careful with its statements, with President Duterte pushing for a dialogue with China to allow the Philippines to exercise what the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled were its sovereign maritime rights.
At a function on Thursday night, Mr. Duterte said he had asked former President Fidel Ramos to act as a special envoy to begin talks with Beijing. Ramos, however, declined.
“War is not an option. So what is the other side? Peaceful talks,” said Mr. Duterte, who immediately told his officials privately to be magnanimous and not to pique Beijing, according to one official.
He warned that China could close sea-lanes and declare an air defense identification zone in the South China Sea, adding another layer to the problem.
“So you do create another problem for our economy and somebody else’s finances,” he said. “So we have to be careful there. So we have to navigate with courtesy.”
But Solicitor General Jose Calida, the country’s top lawyer, said the decision was a “crowning glory” that renews faith in international law.
“It confirms that no one state can claim virtually an entire sea. The award is a historic win not only for the Philippines … it renews humanity’s faith in a rules-based global order,” Calida told a forum on the South China Sea.
“The award opens a horizon of possibilities for all stakeholders. The award is a crowning glory of international law,” Calida said.
His remarks follow two days of carefully calibrated responses from the Philippines and are almost certain to irritate China further.
Calida said, however, that the President was pushing through with the possibility of opening up bilateral negotiations with China on joint development of the disputed waters.
“The baseline for any negotiation should be the decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration,” Calida said on the sidelines of a postarbitration forum held on Friday at the UP College of Law.
He stressed that the Philippines has gained enough from the arbitration award and “we will not concede any of the awards given to us.”
Calida said any negotiations with China would have to respect the ruling, but he stressed “the government will use diplomacy as a first option.”
“The Philippines will not sacrifice what we have obtained from this decision. We will pursue diplomatic means hopefully to convince China that we can coexist peacefully,” he stressed.
Lawrence Martin, cocounsel of the Philippine panel in the arbitration case, said “bilateral talks with China are appropriate as long as they are on the basis of the award.”
“The award is clear and binding and I think China has to accept that any talks have to use the award as foundation or basis,” Martin, who was also at the forum, said in an interview.
Laos supports China
China’s foreign ministry on Friday said Beijing’s position on the case had the support of Laos, the current chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), a regional bloc long dogged by discord over how to deal with China’s maritime assertiveness.
The verdict was discussed on Thursday between Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Lao Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith ahead the Asem summit in Mongolia.
“Thongloun said that Laos supports China’s position, and is willing to work with China to maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea region,” the ministry said in a statement.
The statement did not elaborate. Laos’ foreign ministry has not responded to Reuters’ request for comment on the ruling and its state media made no mention of Thongloun’s comments to Li.
Land-locked Laos, which is boosting economic ties with China, will be hosting a key security meeting later this month at which the South China Sea is expected to dominate the talks. Asean has not issued a statement about the ruling and its members have not said why.
China has said it has widespread support for its rejection of the case but many countries have stuck to cautious comments about resolving disputes peacefully and following international laws.
China claims much of the South China Sea, through which more than $5 trillion in global trade moves annually. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam have rival claims.
But the cautious tone appears to be changing in the Philippines, where there are signs of public disgruntlement with the subdued government response to a decision that most of the country was celebrating.
The United States, a key Philippine ally, is urging Asian nations not to move aggressively to capitalize on the court ruling, according to US administration officials.
The chief of its naval operations, Adm. John Richardson, will discuss the South China Sea among other issues when he meets China’s Navy commander, Adm. Wu Shengli, from Sunday on a three-day trip to “improve mutual understanding”, according to a US Navy statement. With reports from Leila B. Salaverria and AFP/TVJ
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