DFA chief notes challenges in Phl’s quest for peace
“The recent testimony of Mr. Danny Russell before the US Congress in connection with his confirmation as Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific highlights the challenges that all of us face in our quest for a just and lasting peace in our region,” Del Rosario told The STAR.
Russell, the nominee to the top US diplomatic post in East Asia, declared during his Senate confirmation hearing the support for a peaceful approach to settling territorial disputes in the West Philippine Sea and South China Sea.
He told a Senate panel that he will do everything in his power to “lower the temperature” in territorial disputes in the South and East China Seas and push claimants, including China, toward diplomacy.
He also said it was “unacceptable” for China to demand only bilateral negotiations with the other claimants. He voiced strong US support for efforts by Southeast Asia to negotiate as a bloc and frame a “code of conduct” to manage the disputes, an issue to be taken up at regional security talks in Brunei later this month.
Del Rosario welcomed Russell’s statement, describing it as “timely,” “relevant” and as “the insights of a key official of a crucial partner and major player.”
“Department of Foreign Affairs officials have met and dialogued with Mr. Russell and have seen the depth of his knowledge and the breath of his vision in terms of the role the US can play in supporting all efforts to ensure a durable peace in our part of the world,” Del Rosario added.
China’s suspicion against US
A defense expert, however, said Russell’s statement might confirm China’s suspicion that the US is involved in the Philippines’ strategy on the dispute.
“Russell is conveying a message to China that the US fully supports the Philippines in internationalizing the South China Sea disputes and in upholding a rules-based approach in peacefully managing the disputes,” said Rommel Banlaoi, vice president of the Philippine Association of Chinese Studies.
“But Russell’s statement may confirm China’s suspicion that the US is behind the formulation of the Philippines’ current strategy in the South China Sea,” he added.
Asked what could happen if China validates its suspicions, Banlaoi said “China will continue its current strategy of asserting its territorial claims through increased vigilance manifested through enhanced maritime patrols in its claimed waters.”
Russell is currently White House senior director for Asian affairs. He is nominee to become assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, replacing Kurt Campbell who resigned in February to enter business.
The Philippines resorted to the rule of law by initiating arbitral proceedings under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to clarify the country’s maritime entitlements in the West Philippine Sea.
The case concerns China’s interpretation and application of UNCLOS, specifically its nine-dash line claim, which interferes with the lawful exercise by the Philippines of its sovereign rights and jurisdiction in its exclusive economic zone and continental shelf.
China lays claim to nearly the entire South China Sea and the East Sea. The area, delineated by a so-called nine-dash line, covers over 100 islets, atolls and reefs.
Del Rosario said that the Philippines’ recourse to arbitration is firmly rooted in the tradition of good global citizenship, and that the Philippine arbitral initiative, when objectively considered, will benefit all parties.
He explained that for China, an arbitral award would finally clarify for the Chinese its lawful maritime entitlements in the South China Sea under the UNCLOS. This will enable China to provide responsible leadership towards fostering stability in the region.
Military: Dispute settlement beneficial
The defense department also said that the country’s call to settle the West Philippine Sea dispute through international law would be “most beneficial” to all claimant countries.
Reacting to Russell’s statement, defense department spokesman Peter Galvez said adherence to international law and freedom of navigation would promote development in the region.
“Freedom of navigation and more importantly adherence to international maritime law are the pillars that would usher the region towards achieving its maximum potential for development,” Galvez told The STAR yesterday.
“It is important to acknowledge allies and the rest of the international community taking cognizance of this issue, seeing it for themselves and realizing that the position we made is indeed the position that is right and most beneficial to all,” he added.
China has been conducting patrols and constructing structures in disputed areas to assert its territorial claims, triggering concerns among other claimants in the region.
A security official said that early this month, 18 Chinese vessels have intruded into the Philippine territory, raising the need to pour more resources to defense spending.
Moreover, China has reportedly imposed an “exclusion zone” in Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal, effectively barring Filipino fishermen from fishing in the area.
The shoal, also known as Bajo de Masinloc in the Philippines, is 124 nautical miles from the nearest point in Zambales and is well within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.
Chinese occupation of the Panatag Shoal began on April 10, 2012, when surveillance vessels from Beijing prevented the Philippine Navy from arresting Chinese fishermen who had poached endangered marine species.
China has also built a military garrison in Mischief Reef (Panganiban Reef), one of the areas being claimed by the Philippines. Mischief Reef, about 70 nautical miles from Palawan, has been occupied by China since 1995.
China initially built structures on stilts at the reef, supposedly to provide shelter for fishermen but these were later converted into a military garrison with powerful radars.
– With Alexis Romero