Even before the diplomatic tension created by the Aug. 23 hostage crisis has subsided, President Benigno Aquino III will have to deal with another strain on the country’s relationship with China: the dormant yet sensitive issue of the contested Spratly Islands.
The Spratlys dispute will be high on the agenda when Aquino meets his counterparts in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and U.S. President Barack Obama on Friday in New York.
The ASEAN-U.S. Leaders Meeting is expected to tackle the territorial dispute in the context of maritime security under the broad agenda “Maintenance of Regional Stability.”
The meeting comes after the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) announced on Tuesday it was pushing through with the plan to develop Pag-asa Island, which is part of the Spratlys group, into a tourist spot.
AFP spokesman Brig. Gen. Jose Mabanta said major repairs are underway for the airstrip and the pier on the main island of Pag-Asa that needed “a lot of renovation due to poor maintenance, longstanding neglect and deterioration.”
Last Thursday, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) received a call from China’s Ambassador to the Philippines Liu Jianchao, who said the plan was not a welcome pronouncement at a time when the two countries were still ironing out the issue of the Aug. 23 hostage incident that killed eight Hong Kong tourists.
The ambassador also asked about the final report of the government probe on the incident which was still not ready then. The report was presented to the President only last Friday.
But in an interview with defense reporters last month, Navy Flag Officer-in-Command Rear Admiral Danilo Cortez said repairs on the eroded part of the Pag-asa airstrip were on-going. As a result, supply missions to the Philippine-claimed Kalayaan Island Group had to be done monthly now, compared to the previous quarterly.
Cortez also confirmed that an incident at the Ayungin shoal became the subject of a Chinese protest in July. Soldiers stationed there were accused of firing a warning shot at a Chinese vessel. A Philippine Navy ship is beached at Ayungin shoal and serves as housing facility for AFP troops manning the area.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry in Beijing summoned the Philippine embassy in Beijing over the incident, but Cortez clarified that Philippine troops stationed there never fired a warning shot.
“Based on our inquiry, there was no shooting that happened. Actually we just flashed a light at them. To actually fire—that needed clearance from the top because that's an act provoking the other country. We had that investigated and there was none really,” Cortez said.
Before the July incident, the DFA also received a diplomatic protest from the Chinese ambassador on alleged construction activities on the same shoal, which the Philippines denied.
The Philippines occupies nine of the islands in the disputed Spratlys chain or Nansha islands in the South China Sea (SCS). Five countries lay overlapping claims to the Spratlys which are believed to be oil-rich. The Philippines along with fellow ASEAN members Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei contest ownership with China and also with Taiwan.
During the ASEAN-U.S. Leaders Meeting in New York on September 24, other items on the agenda also include “Regional Architecture and Plans for the Future” that will cover US eventual participation in the East Asia Summit (EAS).
There is also an item in the agenda called “Economic Cooperation” where the U.S. will talk about the Trans-Pacific Partnership and other areas of ASEAN-US economic cooperation.
In the draft joint statement of the 2nd ASEAN-U.S. Leaders Meeting prepared by the U.S., the leaders are expected to “oppose the use or threat of force by any claimant attempting to enforce disputed claims in the SCS [South China Sea].”
ASEAN prefers to limited the text to “reaffirming the importance of freedom of navigation, regional peace and stability, unimpeded commerce in respect for relevant universally agreed principles of international law and the peaceful settlement of dispute in the SCS.”
Both the U.S. and ASEAN, however, agreed on the text that supported a full implementation of the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the SCS and encouraged the eventual conclusion of a regional code of conduct in the SCS.
Among those agreed upon by ASEAN and China in the declaration is to “undertake to exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability including, among others, refraining from action of inhabiting on the presently uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals, cays, and other features and to handle their differences in a constructive manner.”
In a meeting in Washington preparatory to the 2nd ASEAN-US summit, U.S. State Department Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell and National Security Council Senior Director for Asia Jeffrey Bader briefed ASEAN ambassadors about their discussions with the Chinese government during a recent visit to Beijing.
The State Department officials said the meeting “provided clarity on expectations and behavior of all states in SCS and that they explained to China that the US statement on SCS do not seek to single out China but was a message to all states.”
In a DFA report about the highlights of that meeting, the exchange of views on regional issues showed that “the US wants to strike the exquisite balance” on issues involving maritime security to ensure that they do not create new venue for US-China tensions. However, they will remain supportive of regional efforts without having to create new mechanisms to discuss the issue.”
(VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. Vera is Latin for “true.”)