Aquino to ASEAN: Stop China’s use of force

Ayee Macaraig

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Aquino to ASEAN: Stop China’s use of force
ASEAN should not allow any country, no matter how powerful, to claim an entire sea as its own and to use force to assert its claim, the Philippine president says

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – After his silence on a sea row to be the “perfect host” to China, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III strongly criticized Beijing at a regional summit, rallying Southeast Asian leaders to stand against its aggression in the South China Sea. 

Aquino raised the Philippines’ heated maritime dispute with China at the 27th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit here on Saturday, November 21, just days after skirting the issue at an economic forum he hosted in Manila. 

The Philippine leader criticized China’s “unilateral actions” including its massive reclamation, and building of military facilities in disputed reefs and shoals in the South China Sea. Aquino said Beijing’s acts have “urgent and far-reaching implications to the region and the international community.” 

“We believe that, as a rules-based Community, ASEAN should not allow any country, no matter how powerful, to claim an entire sea as its own and to use force or the threat thereof in asserting such a claim,” Aquino told his fellow ASEAN leaders in his intervention.

Aquino promised not to discuss the dispute when the Philippines hosted the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation from November 18 to 19, where Chinese President Xi Jinping was among 20 world leaders that Manila welcomed. 

Aquino and Xi talked for two minutes at the sidelines of the APEC summit. The Chinese president endured an awkward, lonely walk during the opening ceremony. At the conclusion of APEC, Aquino delivered a statement but begged off from answering questions from journalists likely to touch on the row. 

This time, the Philippine president did not hold back, saying Chinese actions in the strategic waterway complicated efforts for regional integration under one ASEAN Community. 

“These improvements further complicate and increase the difficulty of coming to compromises that will be necessary to prevent further tension from rising,” Aquino said. 

“As I have stated many times in the past, our collective prosperity requires stability in the region,” he added. 

The Philippines and China are locked in an increasingly tense dispute over the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), a resource-rich area holding key fishing sites, and believed to have vast deposits of oil and gas. 

Tensions escalated after the United States, a treaty ally of the Philippines, sent a destroyer and bombers plans to the area where China is making artificial islands. The US said the patrols are meant to uphold freedom of navigation and overflight. 

In a meeting with Aquino on Wednesday, US President Barack Obama renewed his call for China to stop land reclamation. 

Three other ASEAN members are claimants in the dispute – Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei. Taiwan also has claims to the sea. 

The sea row is expected to be a recurring, major theme in the two-day meeting of ASEAN leaders and its dialogue partners including Obama, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Kuala Lumpur. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang will represent Beijing in the meetings.  

PH to see arbitration through

In his last ASEAN summit, Aquino also devoted a length of his intervention to discuss a historic step the Philippines took under his leadership: to sue China before a United Nations-backed tribunal over the dispute. 

The President discussed the decision of the arbitral tribunal to proceed with hearing the case, a round one victory for the Philippines. The Hague-based tribunal will tackle the merits of the case from November 24 to 30. 

“We welcome the Arbitral Tribunal’s decision on jurisdiction, and look forward to the next round of hearings, scheduled for next week at The Hague. The Philippines remains committed to pursuing arbitration to its final conclusion, and will abide by its decisions,” he said.

Aquino touted arbitration as a “transparent, friendly, durable, and peaceful dispute settlement mechanism” that can bring stability to Southeast Asia. 

His remarks come after other ASEAN members expressed interest in arbitration. 

Indonesia recently asked China to clarify its claims, with Beijing’s 9-dash line possibly encompassing Indonesia’s Natuna islands. Indonesia’s security chief Luhut Panjaitan said Jakarta could take Beijing to an international court over the issue. 

Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Thailand sent observers to the first round of hearings in the arbitration case, along with Japan. Vietnam also submitted a statement to the tribunal, saying it has the power to decide the case. – 

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