MANILA, Philippines - A top US diplomat's declaration of support for a peaceful approach to settling territorial disputes in the West Philippine Sea and South China Sea is a boost to the Philippines' position on the issue, Malacañang said yesterday.
Deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said the pronouncement was in line with the Philippines' efforts to achieve peace and development in the region.
"Our position has always been that there needs to be no coercion when it comes to resolving maritime disputes, and our approach has always been to adopt the rules-based scheme, which is very evident from the steps that we have taken in the several disputes that we are currently involved in," Valte said over dzRB radio.
Danny Russel, the nominee to the top US diplomatic post in East Asia, said during his Senate confirmation hearing that there is no place for "coercion and bullying" in settling maritime disputes in the region.
Russel promised to do everything in his power to “lower the temperature” in the maritime row and push claimants, including China, toward diplomacy.
Valte also said the call of Russel for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to negotiate with China on the issue as a bloc is consistent with the Philippine position. China wants to discuss its maritime disputes with its neighbors on a bilateral basis.
Russel said it is “unacceptable” for China to demand only bilateral negotiations with the other claimants. He also voiced strong US support for efforts by ASEAN to subscribe to a “code of conduct” in managing maritime disputes – an issue to be taken up at a regional security conference in Brunei later this month.
Valte said the Philippines is pushing its position through diplomatic means and in proper venues such as the ASEAN and the United Nations.
Valte said there is no update yet on the UN case filed by the Philippines against China on the West Philippine Sea dispute, except for the resignation of Judge Chris Pinto for conflict of interest because he is married to a Filipina.
International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) president Shunji Yanai temporarily replaced Pinto.
Yanai appointed in April the remaining three members of the five-member UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) Arbitral Tribunal, including himself, to hear the statement of claim filed by the Philippines against China.
“I think the DFA (Department of Foreign Affairs) expects there will be movement. The next step, apart from the formation of the panel, would be that the panel will be deciding if it has jurisdiction over the action, and I think that is supposed to come sometime in July,” Valte said.
Russel is currently White House senior director for Asian affairs. He is nominated to the post of assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs, replacing Kurt Campbell, who resigned in February.
A 28-year career diplomat, Russel is considered less ebullient than Campbell. His long experience with Asia began in Japan where he spent three years studying martial arts. He is also an acknowledged expert in Korea issues.
Russel has also played a major role in the Obama administration’s strategic “pivot” to Asia that has witnessed the US taking a diplomatic position on maritime issues in the region.
Responding to Beijing’s displeasure, the US said it also has interest in the peaceful resolution of disputes over the West Philippine Sea.
Aside from the Philippines and China, four other nations – Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam and Brunei – have claims to reefs, islets, shoals, and atolls in what is believed to be the resource-rich West Philippine Sea. China claims sovereignty over the entire West Philippine Sea, East China and South China.
While the US itself is not a claimant, it says it has a stake in the freedom of navigation in busy sealanes, which are vital to world trade.
In his Senate appearance, Russel said he would continue to warn China that the region in which it would flourish “is a region of law, a region of order and a region of respect for neighbors, not one in which there is space for coercion and bullying.”
He said President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry had raised the issue of China’s behavior with its leaders, and that they “are in no doubt that America stands by our allies.”
In the past years, the most incendiary maritime disputes in the region have involved China and US treaty allies, the Philippines and Japan.