Japan ups pressure on defiant China
Japan raised pressure on China at an Asia-Europe summit yesterday to respect an international tribunal’s ruling that dismissed Beijing’s claim to almost all of the South China Sea, but the meeting ended without direct mention of the dispute, with diplomats describing intense discord over the issue between Asia and Europe.
At a retreat outside the Mongolian capital Ulaanbataar, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told the assembled leaders that the rule of law was “a universal principle that the international community must firmly maintain,” according to Japan’s Jiji Press.
“I strongly hope the parties to the dispute comply with the award and lead to a peaceful solution of the dispute in the South China Sea,” he said.
The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague on Tuesday ruled that there was no legal basis for Beijing’s claims to much of the South China Sea, which are embodied in a “nine-dash line” that dates from 1940s maps and stretches close to the coasts of other countries in the region.
The tribunal ruled that China violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights by building artificial islands in waters within Manila’s 370-kilometer exclusive economic zone and by preventing it from exploring resources and Filipino fishermen from fishing in those waters also known as West Philippine Sea.
China refused to take part in the arbitration proceedings, and said it would not abide by the ruling on the case brought by the Philippines in 2013 after Beijing seized Panatag Shoal, a traditional fishing ground off Zambales province, in 2012.
The ruling has proved a boon to Japan, which is embroiled in a separate territorial dispute of its own with China in the East China Sea and vies with it for influence across Asia.
Other claimants in the South China Sea—Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan—also stand to benefit from the Philippine victory should they bring cases of their own against China in the UN-backed arbitral court.
China refused any discussion of the ruling at the Asia-Europe Meeting (Asem) in the Mongolian capital.
EU weighs in
But despite Chinese objections, the European Union weighed in on the subject, with President Donald Tusk telling reporters that the bloc “will continue to speak out in support of upholding international law,” adding that it had “full confidence” in the tribunal and its decisions.
“It’s not so easy to agree with our Chinese partners when it comes to this issue,” he said. “Our talks were difficult, tough, but also promising.”
The comments by Abe and Tusk yesterday followed a blitz of meetings between the Japanese leader and officials from around the region, including his Vietnamese counterpart Nguyen Xuan Phuc and Philippine Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay, on the summit sidelines as he sought to build consensus on the issue.
Manila has promised not to “taunt or flaunt” the verdict.
No illegal deals with China
But Japanese foreign ministry spokesperson Yasuhisa Kawamura told Agence France-Presse that in his meeting with Abe, Yasay agreed to “closely cooperate” at upcoming conferences of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) to ensure that the “parties to the dispute comply with the final award of the tribunal.”
Leaders of Asean have so far failed to issue a statement on the ruling, reportedly due to objections from member states with close ties to China.
In his meeting with Abe, Yasay said the Philippines would not enter into any bilateral agreement with China that would violate Philippine laws.
“The Philippine Constitution prohibits entering into any agreement that would compromise national interests and rights of Filipinos,” Yasay said.
Abe stressed “the importance of the rule of law and the need for peaceful means to resolve disputes.”
Yasay thanked Japan for its strong support to the Philippine case, saying the Philippines was studying the ruling “very carefully” to determine how it could move forward with allies like Japan in bringing peaceful solutions to disputes in the South China Sea.
“The decision of the tribunal provides a legal basis to move forward, and the Philippine government is currently studying the ruling very carefully,” Yasay said.
Cooperation with Vietnam
In Abe’s meeting with Phuc, the two leaders agreed that the tribunal’s ruling should be observed, and Abe offered to increase cooperation on building Vietnam’s maritime law enforcement capabilities, Kawamura said.
Abe also brought his argument directly to Chinese Premier Li Keqiang during a heated 30-minute meeting on Friday.
Kawamura described the exchange as “frank and candid” and Chinese state media accounts described Li as telling Abe that Japan should “stop hyping up and interfering in the dispute.”
On Friday, the European Union issued a statement noting China’s legal defeat but avoided direct reference to Beijing, reflecting discord among EU governments over how strongly to respond to the court ruling.
While the European Union is neutral in China’s dispute with its Asian neighbors in the South China Sea, Britain, France and Germany want to make clear that Beijing must uphold international law as it seeks a bigger global role.
But speaking with one European voice has become difficult as some smaller countries, including Hungary and Greece, rely on Chinese investment and are unwilling to criticize Beijing.
The meeting ended on Saturday with the leaders issuing a statement in which they reaffirmed their commitment to promote maritime security, safety and cooperation, freedom of navigation and overflight, and to refrain from using threatening force.
They also said disputes should be resolved through international law, the United Nations charter and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, or Unclos, under which the Philippines brought the case against China.
There was no direct mention of the case, but the leaders’ reaffirmation of their commitment to international law made it clear that they wanted China to respect the tribunal’s ruling.
A Mongolian diplomat said negotiations over the closing statement were “intense.”
“The Europeans wanted lots on the South China Sea but the Asians didn’t,” the diplomat said. With report from AFP/TVJ
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