MANILA, Philippines – President Benigno Aquino III said on Monday, March 31, that the Philippines’ decision to file a pleading against China’s claim over the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) is not meant to “provoke” the rising superpower.
Aquino said in an interview with reporters after addressing Philippine National Police Academy (PNPA) graduates in Silang, Cavite, that China should understand that the Philippines is only exercising its right to defend its interests when it sought international arbitration.
“We are not here to challenge China, to provoke them into any action, but I do believe that they should recognize we have the right to defend our own interests,” the President said.
The Philippines filed a historic pleading with the arbitral tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration to put to rest China’s claims over the Philippines’ 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ), including Ayungin Shoal.
China has rejected the pleading, claiming it had no basis in international law and is not covered by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
Asked about the harassment of a Philippine civilian boat by the Chinese Coast Guard in Ayungin Shoal on March 30, Saturday, and whether the government is preparing for more acts of harassment in view of its case against China, Aquino cited the constitutional provision on an “independent” foreign policy.
“Can I refer you to the Constitution? This is Article 2, Section 7 State Policies, and I read it verbatim: ‘The state shall pursue an independent foreign policy and in its relations with other states, the paramount consideration shall be national sovereignty, territorial integrity, national interest, and the right to self-determination,’” he said.
“What are our options with regards to the whole issue of the West Philippine Sea, in the South China Sea? I subscribed to this oath when I assumed office. I have to defend [our] national territory and our sovereignty,” he said.
Aquino said the Philippines’ decision to seek arbitration is compliant with the requirement of taking the “peaceful and rules-based” path to resolve the dispute.
“We went through arbitration primarily because that is a means to resolve the dispute consistent with the policy that it be peaceful, and also in conformity with international law,” he said.
On the chances of the Philippines to obtain a favorable decision on its pleading, Aquino said it would be premature to make any prediction at this time but he stressed that the case was discussed with Congress leaders, and senior Cabinet members.
He said some members of the judiciary were invited “but the judiciary begged off saying that there might be questions and challenges later on.”
“There was a consensus that this is the right way to go to. One of the two steps: Code of Conduct, championing it under ASEAN; and arbitration under UNCLOS,” he said.
Code of Conduct
Aquino said the Philippines has been tracking developments on the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea signed in 2002 among China and the 10 member-nations of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) at the end of the 6th China-Asean Summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia on November 4, 2002.
The declaration was deemed as a positive step toward the peaceful settlement of the long-standing territorial dispute in the South China Sea as the parties reaffirmed their commitment to the UN Charter, UNCLOS, the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia, the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, and other universally-recognized principles of international law.
In the 2002 Declaration, the parties also committed to “undertake to exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability including, among others, refraining from action of inhabiting on the presently uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals, cays, and other features and to handle their differences in a constructive manner.”
Aquino said that since that time, the COC has yet to become a binding instrument.
“In 2002, the Code of Conduct was discussed, there was disagreement, it became DOC [Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea]. In Phnom Penh, we reiterated [it]; 10 years later, we still have no Code of Conduct,” he said.
Faced with this reality, Aquino said the Philippines had no other option but to file the pleading.
“What are our choices here, really? Ayungin Shoal is clearly within the 200 EEZ that is granted to us by UNCLOS,” he said.
The President said the case filed by the Philippines is meant to clarify the “ambiguity” that arose from counterclaims made over the decades.
“Who is entitled to what? What are rights of each one? What are the obligations of every state?” Aquino asked.
‘Special tribute’ to AFP
Aquino also paid “special tribute” to the Armed Forces for re-supplying and rotating the crew on a purposedly grounded Philippine Navy ship in Ayungin Shoal over the weekend as peacefully as possible.
“I should pay special tribute to the men of the AFP. We had men who had to be provisioned in Ayungin Shoal. They accomplished the mission without, I believe, increasing the tension and did it in a way that didn’t pose a threat to any other country. Again, consistent with the peaceful approach,” he said.
Asked to comment on the harassment of the research vessel of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) by the Chinese Coast Guard during that trip, Aquino posed this question, “I am sorry. On harassment, I cannot tell the Chinese government what to do. But perhaps…we can reiterate, if they were in our position – in the reverse –would they have acted differently?”
“[With] Different conditions – they are the smaller country, they are the less military capable, they have interests, will they willingly just forego their interests here? I don’t think so,” he said. – Rappler.com