MANILA, Philippines – As China deployed surface-to-air missiles on a disputed island in the South China Sea, the Philippines asserted its rights over its claimed territory in the area.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino III made the statement in his speech before the Los Angeles World Affairs Council (LAWAC) in California on Tuesday, February 16 (Wednesday, Manila time).
"As for our region in Southeast Asia, we are also witnessing very aggressive actions by our big neighbor to our West and North – the world’s second largest economy, and a nuclear power at that," said Aquino, in apparent reference to China, which he did not mention in his speech.
In explaining why the Philippines has taken the international arbitration track to resolve its dispute with China, Aquino said the Philippines has "zero ambition" to spend its resources on matching the military might of its neighbor, as it would rather use its funds for development programs.
"Yet, like all nations, we need to defend our rights. That is why we have accessed the channels available to us to try and resolve the issue in a manner that is both legal and peaceful, in the belief that, in law, everybody is equal," Aquino said.
He said the Philippines is committed to accept the decision of the United Nations-backed Arbitral Tribunal in The Hague, the Netherlands, and hopes that its "neighbor…will in time do the same."
China had repeatedly rejected the arbitration process and said it would not recognize the tribunal's ruling.
Push for stability
Aquino stressed the importance of regional stability, in his speech as well as in the open forum afterwards, where he was asked about China's latest actions in the South China Sea.
The President said he had not received reports about the Chinese missile deployment, but the Philippine government "noted" the installation of military equipment in several areas of the South China Sea.
In explaining the context of the Philippines' decision to seek international arbitration on its case against China, Aquino noted that the country's experience under his administration showed a "reasonable agreement" on the dispute cannot be done without clear binding rules that can govern the claimants.
He noted the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) signed by member-states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China, which called on all parties not to take action in the South China Sea that would raise tensions in the area.
Aquino said the Philippines waited for years for binding rules to implement the DOC. During those years, it saw China encroaching on waters clearly within the Philippines' 200-mile exclusive economic zone, and even driving away its fishermen and authorities protecting its waters. (READ: Philippines: China to build 'Berlin Wall of the Sea')
China had also built military installations on "features" in the South China Sea that it had reclaimed.
Despite all these actions, Aquino said, the Philippines is still "hoping that reason comes to the forefront."
"We keep telling all parties our government is interested in improving the lot of our people. Prosperity cannot happen in instability, so we are asking for cooperation in promoting stability as a necessary base for prosperity to happen for all our respective peoples," he said.
Aquino was in California primarily to attend the ASEAN-United States Summit hosted by US President Barack Obama in Sunnylands, Rancho Mirage. (READ: Obama calls for 'tangible steps' to lower sea tensions) – Mia Gonzalez/Rappler.com