US backs rule of law in sea row
MANILA, Philippines—A visiting United States official has reaffirmed the US government’s support for international law and the rules of discipline in the disputed territories of the West Philippine Sea (a portion of the South China Sea), saying that America’s focus remained on maintaining peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific.
Scot Marciel, principal deputy assistant secretary at the US Department of State’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, also reiterated US support for a peaceful means of resolving the dispute, including the Philippines’ right to take its case against China to a United Nations arbitral tribunal to clarify maritime boundaries in the contested waters.
“What we’ve emphasized is the importance of all claimant states following international law, and kind of agreed-upon rules of behavior during the period when these disputes were under way,” Marciel said in an interview at the US Embassy on Monday.
Marciel is on a visit to the region for a “reorientation” on the Philippines and other Southeast Asian countries (Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam), touching base with his counterparts in the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) and with observers of developments in the Philippines. He left the country on Tuesday.
“So whenever you look at what we say publicly, it’s always about maintaining the peace, the stability that’s critical to prosperity in the region but also urging all the claimants, including China, to follow sort of rules and international law,” the US official said.
It was amid these escalating tensions that Washington announced its “pivot” to the Asia Pacific, which Marciel said represented the Obama administration’s commitment to be “intensively engaged with the region in every way—diplomatically, economically, [through] people-to-people relations, security,” among others.
He said the United States remained a neutral player in the dispute but it was supportive of efforts to peacefully resolve the matter, including the push for a legally binding code of conduct in the South China Sea and legal remedies such as the Philippines’ arbitration case before the UN tribunal.
Marciel said the United States continued to value its relationship with China, underlined by the visit of US Secretary of State John Kerry to Beijing this week as part of a four-city swing through Asia, Kerry’s fifth visit to the region as America’s top diplomat.
As it builds up its defense capability amid regional security concerns, the Philippines is now negotiating an agreement with Washington for greater US military presence in the country.
While not involved in the negotiations, Marciel described the talks as an “overall effort” to find “21st century ways” of ensuring “interoperability” between the Philippine and US militaries in the areas of defense and disaster response.
“It’s really an effort by both sides to build a very modern and effective defense relationship or to strengthen what’s already a good relationship,” he said.
In a related development, the Department of National Defense (DND) on Tuesday made the rare move of reacting to a statement by a ranking US general who criticized President Aquino’s recent call for international support against China’s aggressive behavior in the West Philippine Sea.
On Monday, US Gen. Herbert Carlisle cautioned Aquino and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe against making provocative statements amid the rising tensions between China on one side and the Philippines and Japan on the other.
“We believe the Philippines’ defense and military establishments have exercised maximum restraint with respect to the situation in the West Philippine Sea. Based on previous occurrences, it is clear the Philippines has been the object of harassment,” the DND said in a statement released Tuesday.
“We believe that in opposing aggressive and expansionist behavior, the Philippines is not only serving its national interests, but also serving the region’s as well, including all states that have a stake in freedom of navigation and clear territorial rights as defined under the principles of Unclos (the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea),” the DND said.
The four-paragraph statement was probably the strongest that the defense department has directed at a US military official commenting on the dispute with China.
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