MANILA -– Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario on Monday said the current Scarborough Shoal dispute is China’s way of sending a message that it can set the rules for any country.
Del Rosario said the sea dispute is a manifestation of a “larger threat to many nations.”
“The standoff is something they should be concerned about if they are interested in maintaining the freedom of navigation and unimpeded commerce in the West Philippine Sea…The bigger picture is anybody can be targeted and consequenced by this,” he said.
He added: “I think the other nations should be paying attention to what is happening. With China claiming everything, having sovereign rights to the entire South China Sea, what’s the message? The message is – I can set the rules for anybody.”
Del Rosario said the Philippine government has been firm in its position that it has sovereign rights over Scarborough Shoal and its surrounding waters. He said that under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS), a country’s exclusive economic zone extends from the edge of the territorial sea out to 200 nautical miles from the baseline.
China has deployed ships near the Scarborough Shoal, an outcropping in the South China Sea that is 230 kilometers (140 miles) from the Philippines’ main island of Luzon.
The nearest Chinese land mass from Scarborough Shoal is Hainan province, 1,200 kilometers, (750 miles) to the northwest, according to Philippine naval maps given to the media.
China claims all of the South China Sea as its own on historical grounds, even waters approaching the coasts of the Philippines and other Southeast Asian countries.
The rival claims have been a source of regional tensions for decades, and the Philippines as well as Vietnam have accused China over the past year of becoming increasingly aggressive in asserting its position.
The latest flare-up occurred on April 8 when the Philippines found eight Chinese fishing boats at Scarborough Shoal fishing illegally, and sent its warship to arrest the crew.
China quickly deployed three civilian maritime vessels which took turns in blocking the warship.
In a bid to calm the situation, the Philippines pulled back its warship and replaced it with a coast guard vessel and the fishing vessels later sailed away.
However, China has refused to withdraw its ships unless the Philippine coast guard vessel retreats first. Two Chinese fisheries ships are now in a standoff with a lone Philippine coast guard vessel at the shoal.
10 diplomatic protests
In the interview, del Rosario said a legal settlement to the territorial dispute is preferable due to China’s insistence that it owns the shoal and its surrounding waters.
He said the Philippine government has filed close to 10 diplomatic protests before the Chinese government particularly during the incursions of Chinese vessels at Reed Bank.
He said the Chinese government’s response has always been the same: that it has sovereign rights over the South China Sea and “we cannot intrude into our own territory.”
“They are saying they have a historical claim over it. A historical claim does not translate into a title. That’s number 1. They said they named it. Naming something does not mean you are entitled to it. Thirdly, they took the position that they have used that area, their fishermen used it. Use of an area does not mean you are entitled. If I say I have been traditionally fishing in the Pacific Ocean, that does not mean I am entitled to claim the ocean as mine,” he said.
Del Rosario noted that no diplomatic protest was filed against China during the previous administration. “We have taken a stronger stand. The President’s position is – what is ours is ours and we should stand up for what is ours,” he said.
UN Security Council not an option
The DFA secretary said bringing the sea dispute before the UN Security Council is not an option since China is a permanent member of the council and has veto powers.
What the Philippine government can do, del Rosario said, is bring the dispute before the UN General Assembly “if the dispute accelerates and we want to get a statement from general assembly.”
Del Rosario said there are 5 dispute settlement mechanisms under UNCLOS that the Philippines can tap to settle the territorial dispute. The 5 are the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS), the International Court of Justice, 2 arbitration mechanisms and a compulsory conciliation mechanism “where you can go without China and get a judgment.”
“Unfortunately, the judgment is not legally binding but it has moral suasion,” he added.
The foreign affairs secretary said the Aquino administration is taking a 3-pronged approach to diplomatic relations with other countries. He said the 3 are protecting national interests, enhancing diplomacy and protecting Filipinos who are abroad.
In the case of China, he said the Philippines and China have agreed to move forward bilateral relations while dealing separately with other issues such as the South China Sea and the Northrail project.
Del Rosario said he is also urging President Aquino to appoint a career official as the new Philippine envoy to China, instead of a political appointee. Aquino earlier accepted Domingo Lee’s request that his nomination as Philippine ambassador to the People’s Republic of China be withdrawn after having been repeatedly bypassed by the Commission on Appointments.
“I would recommend someone who is a career appointee rather than political. We don’t have time for an ambassador who has to learn what that position entails. He’s got to hit the ground running. We need a career professional. We want someone competent and who knows the issues,” he said. (MNS)