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Duterte to China: Resolve sea row based on international law

/ 05:00 AM September 13, 2020

MANILA, Philippines — President Rodrigo Duterte told a senior Chinese official that disputes in the South China Sea must be resolved in accordance with international law and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), Malacañang said on Saturday.

The President made the statement to China’s Defense Minister Wei Fenghe, who paid a courtesy call on him at the Palace on Friday while on a visit to Manila.

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Adherence to int’l law

“We must always be guided by our commitments in international law. Any and all disputes must be resolved peacefully in full accord with the Unclos and all relevant international instruments,” Mr. Duterte told Wei.

Malacañang did not say whether the Chinese defense chief responded to that statement from the President.

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Mr. Duterte was reiterating his call during the summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) in June to adhere to international law and the Unclos to resolve maritime disputes in the South China Sea.

Potential China-Asean legacy

The Philippines, China and several Asean members, such as Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei, have conflicting claims in the South China Sea.

China wants to settle these disputes bilaterally rather than through multilateral or international platforms.

In July 2016, the international arbitral tribunal ruled to invalidate China’s claims, citing historical grounds, over nearly the entire South China Sea in a case brought against Beijing by Manila.

China refused to participate in the arbitration, a process that was in accordance with the Unclos, and rejected the tribunal’s decision.

As he did at the Asean summit, Mr. Duterte again pressed for an effective and substantive code of conduct in the South China Sea, which he said could be the legacy of China and the regional bloc in ensuring peace, security and stability in the region.

Important sea-lane

The South China Sea serves as an important sea-lane where navigation and other freedoms under international law are guaranteed, Mr. Duterte said.

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“All relevant players with a stake there must see themselves as playing an important stabilizing role,” he told Wei.

China and Asean have been negotiating the pact in an effort to deter aggressive acts by claimant states that could spark a major armed confrontation in the disputed waters.

China has been accused of delaying the start of negotiations for such a regional pact for years. Critics say Beijing only agreed to commence formal talks with Asean after it completed building seven artificial islands in the Spratlys, the most contested area in the South China Sea.

The proposed code could have potentially restrained China from undertaking such major constructions in the disputed waters, according to critics.

Ready to manage differences

Malacañang said Wei informed Mr. Duterte that China was ready to manage differences to secure peace and stability in the South China Sea, advance negotiations on the code of conduct and work with the Philippines on maritime cooperation.

Wei also said Chinese President Xi Jinping considered relations with the Philippines and with Mr. Duterte important.

In a separate meeting with Wei, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the Philippines would adhere “without any possibility of compromise” to the arbitral ruling, according to a statement by the Department of National Defense (DND).

Avoiding misunderstanding

But that statement was later withdrawn and the contentious comment removed.

It said the Philippine military would continue “to conduct routine, legitimate maritime patrols in the West Philippine Sea and challenge any activities that infringe on Philippine sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction.”

The West Philippine Sea are waters within the country’s 370-kilometer exclusive economic zone recognized under the Unclos.

In a subsequent statement, the DND said Lorenzana and Wei discussed “issues” regarding the disputed waters and “how to avoid misunderstanding, and to resolve differences amicably.”

It added that the two defense chiefs “both agreed that peace and stability in the SCS [South China Sea] should be maintained.”

China has turned the artificial islands into military outposts complete with troop barracks, airfields and missile launchers.

‘Inutile’

Mr. Duterte, who has been accused of being soft on China, had said he was “inutile” against Chinese aggression in the disputed waters.

He has been saying that the only way to retake the Philippine-claimed territories seized by the Chinese was through war, but one that he said would decimate the poorly armed Philippine military.

—With reports from AP and Reuters

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TAGS: maritime dispute, PCA ruling, PH-China Relations, Rodrigo Duterte, South China Sea, West Philippines Sea
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