MANILA – Malacañang on Friday said the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) should discuss in future talks China’s alleged persistent island-building in the South China Sea if such report is proven true.
The Palace made the statement in light of a United States think tank's report on China's alleged continuous reclamation activities in the South China Sea.
This contradicted recent statements by top diplomats of Beijing and Manila, who recently met at the Philippine capital along with other ASEAN ministers and adopted a framework for a code of conduct that would govern the disputed waters.
Presidential Spokesperson Ernesto Abella said if the think tank’s report is true, then “these can be taken up in ASEAN… in future discussions.”
“It would be best if this apparent evidence can be vetted for accuracy, if only to preserve the trust and confidence that all disputants over the territory in South China Sea, South China… West Philippine [Sea], North Natuna Seas need to have…in each other going forward,” Abella said in a news conference.
The West Philippine Sea is how the Philippines calls its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the South China Sea, while North Notuna Sea is Indonesia's name for its EEZ in the disputed waters.
The Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies' (CSIS) Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) recently published new satellite photos dated Aug. 5, 2017 showing China's expansion in the Paracel Islands, which are also being claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan.
The CSIS report is contrary to Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano’s statement in closing the recent 50th ASEAN Foreign Ministers' Meeting in Manila that China was no longer undertaking land reclamation activities in the disputed seas.
Cayetano said this was the reason why the Philippines did not push for the inclusion of the land reclamation issue in the ASEAN foreign ministers’ joint communiqué.
The South China Sea has long been the most divisive issue for the ASEAN, with China's influence looming large over its activities. Some countries are wary of taking a stronger stand, concerned of the possible repercussions of defying Beijing.
China is sensitive to even a veiled reference by ASEAN to its seven reclaimed reefs, three of which have runways, missile batteries, radars and, according to some experts, the capability to accommodate fighter jets.
The communiqué released late Sunday took a stronger position than an earlier, unpublished draft, seen as a watered-down version of one issued last year in Laos.
The agreed text "emphasized the importance of non-militarization and self-restraint" in the disputed waters.
It said that, after extensive discussions, concerns were voiced by some members about land reclamation "and activities in the area which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tension and may undermine peace, security and stability."
While the joint communiqué took a stronger position compared to the unpublished draft, it neither mentioned Manila's arbitration win nor called for a legally binding code of conduct on the South China Sea.
ASEAN and China agreed on a framework for the code of conduct, but the details still have to be negotiated. It's uncertain whether the new code will be legally binding. Cayetano earlier expressed preference for the code to be so.
China has bristled at the intervention of “outside” parties in the South China Sea dispute, preferring to deal with claimants on a one-on-one basis.
The US, Australia, and Japan earned Beijing’s ire when the three countries’ foreign ministers issued a joint statement reminding the Philippines and China to abide by the arbitral ruling invalidating Beijing’s nine-dash line claim to the sea.
Since assuming power, President Rodrigo Duterte has chosen to downplay the sea dispute and set aside Manila’s arbitral victory in pursuit of warmer ties with the Asian giant.
The Filipino leader, nonetheless, said he would bring up the legal victory at the proper time, assuring the public that he is not giving up Manila’s claims to the resource-rich sea.
FREEDOM OF NAVIGATION OPERATION
In a related development, a US Navy destroyer carried out a "freedom of navigation operation" on Thursday, coming within 12 nautical miles of an artificial island built up by China in the South China Sea, US officials told Reuters.
The operation came as US President Donald Trump's administration sought Chinese cooperation in dealing with North Korea's missile and nuclear programs and could complicate efforts to secure a common stance.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, some officials said the USS John S. McCain traveled close to Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands, among a string of islets, reefs and shoals in the contested waters.
AFP Spokesperson Restituto Padilla said the Philippines sees nothing wrong with the US move, even as China expressed “strong dissatisfaction” with it.
“Freedom of navigation is guaranteed and anyone can do it. So, we just need to monitor. And as long as it is within the bounds set forth by international law, then it is all right,” Padilla said.
Abella also said Manila does not find the US operation objectionable.
The US has criticized China's construction of islands and build-up of military facilities in the sea, and is concerned they could be used to restrict free nautical movement.
China's claims in the South China Sea, through which about $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes each year are contested by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. - with Reuters