MANILA - The Philippines’ top defense official on Tuesday told China to “comply” with the landmark 2016 award of an international arbitration court in The Hague on the South China Sea, saying adherence to international law bodes well for stability in the region.
“We urge China to comply with the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) ruling, and abide by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to which it is a signatory,” Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said in a statement.
The UN-backed tribunal ruled on July 12, 2016 that China’s sweeping claims over almost the entire South China Sea, based on historic rights, has no legal basis.
It also determined some previously disputed features there, which China occupied and reclaimed, as being part of the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ), and that the Scarborough Shoal should remain open as traditional fishing ground for those who have long relied on it.
The court said China’s artificial island-building activities in the South China Sea have also caused marine environmental damage. The reclaimed features were later fortified with military installations.
China did not participate in the arbitration proceedings, which the Philippines initiated in 2013 after suffering from Beijing’s aggressive activities in the Scarborough Shoal. Insisting its position to deal with the maritime disputes bilaterally, China continues to disregard the award, which other countries have hailed.
“It is in the best interest of regional stability that China heed the call of the community of nations to follow international law and honor existing international agreements,” Lorenzana said.
The Philippines “strongly” agrees with the international community’s position “that there should be a rules-based order in the South China Sea,” he said.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement that in aligning his country’s position with the arbitral tribunal’s decision, the United States rejects China’s claims over the Scarborough Shoal, the Spratly islands, the Mischief Reef, the Second Thomas Shoal, the Vanguard Bank (off Vietnam), the Luconia Shoals (off Malaysia), the waters in Brunei’s EEZ, the Natuna Besar (off Indonesia), and the James Shoal.
“The world will not allow Beijing to treat the South China Sea as its maritime empire. America stands with our Southeast Asian allies and partners in protecting their sovereign rights to offshore resources, consistent with their rights and obligations under international law,” Pompeo said.
Objecting to the remarks of the United States, which it said is “not a country directly involved in the disputes,” China claimed it has been “committed to resolving disputes through negotiation and consultation” even as the situation in the South China Sea “has remained peaceful and stable and is still improving.”
Lorenzana said the country continues “to push for the finalization of a substantive Code of Conduct in the South China Sea” to prevent the escalation of tensions in the region.
The completion of the proposed code between ASEAN and China, originally eyed in 2021, however, may be delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic that has affected movement of people.
Former Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario, who headed Manila’s arbitration team at The Hague, advised the Duterte government to take the award off the shelf and raise it before the 75th session of the United Nations General Assembly in September.
Concrete steps should also be taken to consolidate support and assistance from the US, Australia, European Union, Japan, ASEAN and other nations, he said.
More importantly, the Philippines must hold Chinese officials criminally accountable for the destruction of marine wealth in the South China Sea and ask China to pay monetarily.
Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said over the weekend that “the award is non-negotiable.”
Aside from China and the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan also have competing claims in the South China Sea.