China had initiated a “massive” military buildup in the South China Sea threatening peace in the Asian region, Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario told fellow foreign ministers of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations on the first day of a security forum in the Brunei capital of Bandar Seri Begawan.
Del Rosario’s potshots at China were the latest escalation in a dispute over competing claims to the strategically vital and potentially resource-rich sea that have raised concerns about potential military conflict.
“The Philippines views with serious concern the militarization of the South China Sea,” Del Rosario said.
“The overwhelming presence of Chinese ships, including military and paramilitary ships, and the issuance of threats pose serious challenges for the region as a whole,” he added.
In a press statement, Del Rosario said there was a “massive presence of Chinese military and paramilitary ships” at two groups of islets within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, called Scarborough Shoal and Second Thomas Shoal.
He described the Chinese presence as “threats to efforts to maintain maritime peace and stability in the region.” “We are prevented in our own EEZ (exclusive economic zone) from fishing, from sourcing our own natural resources and from enforcing our own laws,” he later told reporters.
Del Rosario said the Chinese actions violated a pact in 2002 in which rival claimants to the sea pledged not to take any actions that may increase tensions.
The non-binding declaration by ASEAN and China also committed claimants to settle their disputes “without resorting to the threat or use of force”.
China claims nearly all of the sea, even waters approaching the coasts of neighboring countries.
ASEAN members the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia also have competing claims to parts of the sea, as does Taiwan.
The rivalries have for decades been a source of regional tension, with China and Vietnam fighting battles in 1974 and 1988 for control of some islands in which dozens of Vietnamese soldiers died.
Tensions have again grown in recent years with the Philippines, Vietnam and some other countries expressing concern at increasingly assertive Chinese military and diplomatic tactics to stress control over the sea.
A powerful arm of China’s state-run media warned the Philippines last Saturday that its defiance could lead to aggressive Chinese action.
“If the Philippines continues to provoke China... a counterstrike will be hard to avoid,” said a commentary run by the People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the ruling Communist Party.
ASEAN has been trying for more than a decade to secure agreement from China on a legally binding code of conduct that would govern actions in the South China Sea.
China has resisted agreeing to the code, wary of making any concessions that may weaken its claim.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told his ASEAN counterparts that his country had agreed to hold talks on establishing a code during a previously scheduled meeting in Beijing this September.
However Wang cautioned there would be no quick agreement, emphasising that the “consultations” would be a “gradual process”.
China’s agreement to discuss the issue drew a mixed response from ASEAN. Thai Foreign Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul described it as a “very significant development”.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa welcomed the news, but emphasized that diplomacy would only work if all parties first exercised restraint.
“Now there is a sense of anarchy,” he said.
The Brunei security talks will expand on Monday and Tuesday to include the United States, China, Japan, Russia and other countries across the Asia-Pacific, providing a platform for face-to-face diplomacy on many of the world’s hot-button issues.
US Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to hold a series of rapid-fire meetings with his counterparts from the world’s major powers, including Wang and Russia’s Sergei Lavrov.
This is a violation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC),” Del Rosario said.
“We reiterate our continued advocacy for a peaceful and rules-based settlement of disputes in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law,” he added.
Del Rosario said Scarborough Shoal and Ayungin Shoal are “integral parts of Philippine territory,” as it lies within the country’s 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone as allowed by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The Philippines and China are both signatories to the treaty.
Del Rosario said a rules-based approach in the resolution and management of disputes in the South China Sea involves two complementary components: the expeditious arbitration of maritime disputes under UNCLOS; and the early conclusion of a Code of Conduct between ASEAN and China.
Despite the risks of standing up to China, an Asian economic giant, the Philippines sought arbitration under the UNCLOS last January to question the legality of Beijing’s sweeping claims in the South China Sea.
China has dismissed the Philippine action, which got the backing of several Asian and Western nations like Japan, the United States and European Union.
Other Asian nations including those with territorial disputes with China have not been as aggressive to protect their trade relations with Beijing and avoid incurring China’s ire.
Del Rosario said the clarification of maritime entitlements through arbitration “promotes the primacy of the rule of law in inter-state relations.”
“The legal track does not constitute abandonment of diplomatic avenues. We continue to exert efforts to move forward and enhance our relations with China on the basis of mutual respect and sovereign equality. Neither does the case diminish our zeal to pursue a binding Code of Conduct,” he said.
In the absence of a legally-binding code of conduct, Del Rosario called on all claimants to “comply in utmost good faith with all the provisions” of an existing declaration that commits all parties to address the disputes without the use of threat or force and discourages new occupation of territories.
“If we are to live up to our vision of a politically cohesive, economically integrated and people-oriented ASEAN Community, then now, more than ever, is the time to reaffirm our own remarkable brand of unity amidst diversity,” Del Rosario said.