MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – In a move seen to further consolidate their ranks on a regional security issue, the Philippines and the United States agreed on “bold steps” to ease tensions in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), including a call to halt reclamation and construction activities in disputed waters.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino III and US President Barack Obama agreed on the need for such initiatives during their bilateral meeting at the Sofitel Philippine Plaza Hotel in Pasay City, at the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders’ Summit on Wednesday, November 18.
“We agreed on the need for bold steps to lower tensions, including pledging to halt further reclamation, new construction, and militarization of disputed areas in the South China Sea,” Obama said in his opening statement at a joint press conference with Aquino at Sofitel, after their meeting.
He said he and Aquino discussed, among others, “the impact of China’s reclamation and construction activities on regional stability.”
Obama reiterated US support for the Philippines on its peaceful and diplomatic approach to solving regional disputes, even as it stands ready to “defend” its strategic ally in the face of external threats. (READ: Obama reaffirms ‘rock solid commitment’ to PH)
“As President Aquino indicated, disputes need to be resolved peacefully, that’s why the United States supports the Philippines’ decision to use arbitration under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea to peacefully and lawfully address differences,” Obama said.
The US leader made the pronouncement hours before APEC leaders, including Chinese President Xi Jinping, were to have their first official event at the Manila summit.
In his opening statement, Aquino said, “I take this opportunity to reiterate the Philippines’ view that the freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea must be continuously upheld, consistent with international law.”
In June, the Philippine leader drew strong criticism from Beijing when he likened China to Nazi Germany, based on the former’s reclamation activities in disputed territory.
The South China Sea dispute is not on the APEC leaders’ official agenda, but it had been discussed on a bilateral level among some leaders. Aquino had also discussed the concern when he met with Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang. (READ: Philippines, Vietnam boost ties as China sea disputes fester)
Vietnam is also a claimant to the South China Sea.
At a regular press briefing in Beijing on Wednesday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said Obama should not get involved in disputes over the South China Sea.
“The United States should stop playing up the South China Sea issue, stop heightening tensions in the South China Sea, and stop complicating disputes in the South China Sea,” he said.
“No country has the right to point fingers at China‘s construction activities,” he added.
In October, China slammed the US for the sail-by of its warship near artificial islands being built by the Asian country in disputed waters, a move defended by Aquino himself as a “balance of power.” (READ: US warship sails near islands claimed by China) – with reports from Agence France-Presse/Rappler.com