Int’l law experts laud PH stand on sea row
Amid rising tensions between claimants to territory in the East China Sea and the West Philippine Sea, the Philippines’ stand of invoking international law in asserting its own claim against an increasingly aggressive China is gaining support from international law experts.
Meeting in Manila on Thursday, international law experts and scholars said the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) should serve as the anchor for nations disputing ownerships of resource-rich islands in the East China Sea, South China Sea and its part within Philippine territory called West Philippine Sea.
Tensions have risen in recent days between Japan and China over Beijing’s declaration on Nov. 23 of an “air defense identification zone” in the East China Sea covering a group of uninhabited islands claimed by both countries, and between the Philippines and China over suggestions that Beijing would declare the next such zone in the West Philippine Sea.
Speaking at a forum organized by the Angara Centre for Law and Economics, a think tank founded by former Sen. Edgardo Angara, Ian Storey, a senior fellow at the Institute for Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, said China “must bring its claims into line” with the law of the sea.
Storey cited complications posed by China’s nine-dash-line claim to nearly the whole of the South China Sea, including the West Philippine Sea.
“[The] nine-dash line is the crux of the South China Sea problem and stands in the way of a resolution and joint development,” Storey said, adding that China’s “commitment to international law is shaky at best.”
“China is claiming ‘historical rights’ within the nine-dash line but the dispute should be settled in accordance with “historical facts and international law,” Storey said.
Also on Thursday, US Ambassador to the Philippines Philip Goldberg appealed to all the parties to work toward “reducing tensions.”
“I think you know where we stand and that is we think we should be working very much to reduce tensions, whether that is in Southeast Asia or Northeast Asia,” Goldberg told reporters in a joint briefing with Senate President Franklin Drilon.
Goldberg said China’s declaration of the air defense zone in the East China Sea was “unilateral” and could “raise tensions,” but that the United States has stepped in to preempt any further escalation.
US Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. is traveling to Asia this week, and has met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
In talks with Abe in Tokyo on Tuesday, Biden condemned China’s action as an effort to “unilaterally change the status quo” and said it had raised “the risk of accidents and miscalculation.” He promised to raise those objections with Xi in Beijing.
In Beijing on Wednesday, Biden laid out the American case against China’s action in discussions with Xi and urged the Chinese leader to show restraint in the zone, which he stressed the United States regarded as illegitimate and a provocation.
Biden stopped short of calling on China to rescind the zone, something it is highly unlikely to do, given the nationalist sentiments that have been animated by its standoff with Japan. But the United States has ignored the zone, sending B-52 bombers last week to fly through it.
Respect for interests
Xi held his ground, suggesting that China and Japan may be able to manage a standoff and, speaking in a conciliatory tone, repeated a phrase he used at a meeting with US President Barack Obama in Southern California in June, said China wanted to build a “new model of major-country relations,” based on respecting each other’s core interests, collaborating on global problems and devising ways to “appropriately handle sensitive issues and differences between us.”
Biden said the relationship between China and the United States needed candor and trust. He urged China to refrain from “taking steps that will increase tension” and to deal better with the other claimants to territory in the region.
China declared the air defense zone in the East China Sea to bolster its claim to five uninhabited islands and three barren rocks there long administered by Japan and known to the Japanese as Senkaku Islands.
The Senkakus are also known as Pinnacle Islands, but the Chinese call them Diaoyu Islands. Taiwan is also claiming ownership of the islands, believed to have potential oil and gas reserves.
China and the Philippines are contesting ownership of Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal), a rich fishing ground in the West Philippine Sea off Zambales province, and a group of islands in the Spratly archipelago, off Palawan Island farther to the southwest.
China seized control of Panatag Shoal after a two-month standoff with the Philippines last year, forcing Manila to bring the dispute to the United Nations in January for arbitration.
Beijing has refused to take part in the arbitration but under the rules the proceedings can continue without China’s participation.
The Philippines will file in March next year a pleading detailing the merits of its case against China.
Manila’s defiance has angered Beijing, which authorized the maritime police of Hainan province in January to board and seize foreign vessels entering what it considers Chinese waters.
Shows of force
Beijing also sends large fishing expeditions to the Spratlys accompanied by maritime patrol vessels, in shows of force directed at the Philippines and Vietnam, which also claims territory in its part of the South China Sea that it calls East Sea.
Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan also claim parts of the sea, home to vital trade routes where a third of global trade passes, and of islands, islets, reef and atolls believed to be sitting on vast oil and gas reserves.
That China will declare an air defense zone in the West Philippine Sea is not unlikely, with Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Ma Keqing saying on Monday night that her country had the “sovereign right” to decide “where and when” to declare the next zone.
Malacañang said on Wednesday that it will oppose through diplomatic channels a Chinese air defense zone in the West Philippine Sea.
But Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin on Thursday dismissed as “speculative” news reports about China’s considering declaring an air defense zone in the West Philippine Sea, as the Chinese had “not done something yet.”
Gazmin, however, acknowledged that the imposition of an air defense zone by the Chinese in the West Philippine Sea will be a threat to regional security.
Storey called on the parties to work together and assert their position in international forums, underscoring “the critical importance of upholding international law and norms of behavior.”
“Asia-Pacific states have a collective interest in peace and stability in the South China Sea, the free flow of maritime trade, freedom of navigation and protecting rights and responsibilities of coastal states under Unclos,” Storey said.
He said the dispute would see a “crucial phase” over the next decade, warning that allowing the escalation to continue might be framed into the rivalry between the United States and China, dynamics seen now more than ever as the American side pursues its strategic pivot to the Asia-Pacific region.
China views the US strategy as aimed to contain its rise as a regional military and economic power.
“If the claimants design and implement an effective set of conflict prevention and crisis management mechanisms, provide legal clarity to their claims, and finally muster the political will to pursue a negotiated settlement that resolves their territorial and maritime boundary claims, a bright future beckons,” Storey said.
“But if the status quo continues, and tensions are allowed to fester, the dispute will almost certainly be sucked into the vortex of US-China rivalry, rendering it utterly intractable for at least a few more generations,” he said.
Stanford University senior fellow Donald Emmerson shared Storey’s view, saying clarifying maritime boundaries through the Unclos is a positive step toward resolving the disputes.
“Tensions urgently need to be addressed on multiple fronts in alternative ways. Recourse to international law is a prime option. Other channels include bilateral and multiple negotiations—bilateral, minilateral, and multilateral—designed to induce, end, or alter specific actions by the parties concerned,” said Emmerson in a statement the Angara Centre released ahead of Thursday’s forum.
In a separate interview, the US ambassador to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) reaffirmed American support for the Philippines’ peaceful efforts to resolve its maritime dispute with China.
Jakarta-based David Carden, who is visiting Manila this week for a US-led youth summit and to meet with Philippine officials and agencies, also said unilateral moves that tended to raise tensions should be avoided.
“We don’t take sides in … territorial disputes. But we do believe, all disputes of whatever nature should be resolved peacefully and in accordance with international law. We have a deep stake, as does the rest of the world in that case,” Carden said in an interview on Tuesday.
“Any actions, unilateral actions that would destabilize a region, no matter what they are, are [steps that] we believe should be avoided and instead resort to dispute resolution mechanisms that already exist for the management of these kinds of concerns,” he said.—With reports from TJ Burgonio, Nikko Dizon and wires
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