Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono yester-day said there will be no quick resolution to competing territorial claims in the South China Sea, warning tensions must not be allowed to escalate.
China essentially claims the whole of the South China Sea, which is believed to be rich in hydrocarbons and straddles strategic shipping lanes vital to global trade.
Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims in the waters, causing regular diplomatic flare-ups.
“Short of a comprehensive resolution, the claimants must do their best to manage and contain the disputes to make sure that it does not escalate or worse lead to the outbreak
of military clashes,” he told the First Strategic Review Forum in Jakarta.
Divisions over members’ territorial disputes with China prevented the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) from issuing its customary joint statement at the conclusion of its meeting in Cambodia on Friday.
“We need to send a strong signal to the world that the future of the South China Sea is a predictable, manageable and optimistic one,” Yudhoyono said.
Presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda clarified that even with a heightened level of conflict between the Philippines and its neighboring Asian country China, the government would maintain its preference to pursue solutions through peaceful and diplomatic means.
“I think that we will maintain our sovereign rights over our exclusive economic zone (EEZ). That is something that we will not give up,” says Lacierda.
“We have not used our military force. We have always maintained that the only resolution to this incident is a peaceful solution – a peaceful resolution to the problem” he added.
Lacierda said that Scarborough was never a disputed area citing its geographical descriptions which show the area as well within the Philippine EEZ.
Despite the Philippines’ failure to convince Asean members to help the government resolve the territorial dispute with China, Sen. Gregorio Honasan still insisted on a diplomatic approach, including backdoor initiatives.
“We have to study carefully and try to understand the position of China because you always negotiate from a position of perceived, or real strength. In our case, we have perceived or real, but no strength compared to China. It means we have to develop more leverage from our regional and bilateral alliances. But we support the moves of the (Department of Foreign Affairs) and the (Department of National Defense),” he told a press conference.
“We are not occupying high moral and political ground at least in the Asean. But let us not allow ourselves to be relegated to a purely defensive posture,” he added.
The vice chairman of the Senate national defense and security committee maintains belief that international bodies such as the International Tribunal on the Law of the Seas (ITLoS) can help convince China to face the issue on disputed territories especially if the country will be pictured as being bullied by its Asian neighbor.
“We only deal with China, the Asean and the US. Our audience should entail the entire world and what should be our message? That this country of ours, with an area near Zambales is being claimed by China.
“But besides the ITLoS, the proceedings of which could prove to be tedious, Honasan said the government can revisit other options such as pursuing the initiative for joint exploration and use within the undisputed territories as earlier suggested by his colleague, Sen. Panfilo Lacson.
“I don’t see any problem there unlike (conducting joint oil exploration in) disputed territories. I think we should look at it in another angle, to undertake joint cooperation with other countries, including China, explore what could be put to better use by all of the claimants and neighboring countries,” he said.
Honasan also suggested the conduct of a performance audit on all of the country’s bilateral security and economic arrangements to to determine if they still serve a purpose.
The senator said that if the government managed to agree on a mutual defense treaty with the US, the Philippines should also consider the same with China.
Sen. Loren Legarda expressed concern over the implications of the failure by the Asean Ministers to agree on a joint statement during the recently concluded Foreign Minister’s meeting in Phnom Penh. It was the first time in its 45 years of existence that Asean has failed to issue such a statement at the conclusion of its meetings.
She added that “the leaders of Asean, in a meeting in Phnom Penh in April 2012, adopted a Declaration that underscored, among others, the commitment of Asean members to “uphold the collective commitments reflected in the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) and the universally recognized principles of international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and to move for the eventual realization of a regional code of conduct.”
Legarda felt that “the developments, or lack of it, are unsettling. It has been ten years since Asean adopted the DOC. Asean true test comes in its ability to maintain a united Southeast Asia that is able to engage constructively with Asia and the rest of the world, without losing Asean centrality.”
Relatedly, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) yesterday maintained that the deployment of a fleet of 30 Chinese fishing in the West Philippine Sea remains a concern of the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) but stressed the military was ready to implement any order coming from the higher authorities.
At a press briefing, AFP spokesman Col. Arnulfo Marcelo Burgos Jr. said the military was complementing the efforts of the PCG in the Kalayaan Islands Group or the Spratlys in the West Philippine Sea where maritime patrols are continuing as part of its mandate.
“The maritime laws there (Spratlys) are being enforced by the (PCG), and for us, whenever told to do so like for example to assist the PCG then we will be in the area. But as far as our constitutional mandate to protect the people and the state, our patrols are continuing,” said Burgos.
Asked what moves would the AFP make if the Chinese fishing fleet entered the country’s maritime territory, Burgos replied “it’s very clear in the mandate of the AFP…we are just implementor, so whenever told upon by higher authorities, we will just execute.”
Some 30 Chinese fishing vessels reportedly arrived in the Spratlys last Sunday, escorted by a fishery and law enforcement command ship for a 10-day fishing expedition.
Immediately, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) warned the Chinese not to intrude into Philippine territory or face another protest.
The Chinese fishing fleet was monitored at the vicinities of Kagitingan Reef in the KIGs off the waters of Palawan.
The deployment of the huge Chinese fishing fleet came almost the same day a Chinese warship, which ran aground in Hasa Hasa (Half Moon) Shoal located approximately 60 nautical miles off Balabac also in Palawan last Wednesday, was refloated by six other Chinese government-controlled ships.
Burgos maintained that while the PCG was policing the country’s territorial waters “we are doing parallel effort.”
He said the PCG was conducting monitoring and surveillance over the country’s territory and the AFP was complementing such moves. He did not elaborate.
By Fernan J. Angeles, Angie M. Rosales, Efren B. Chavez and Mario J. Mallari with AFP