Aquino: ASEAN must tackle China sea claims
MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – Philippine President Benigno Aquino III urged fellow Southeast Asian leaders to face up to the threat posed by China's contentious claims to most of the South China Sea as they headed to a regional summit.
Speaking before leaving to attend the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) leaders meeting in Myanmar, Aquino emphasized the need for the "rule of law" to prevail.
The Philippines filed a case at a UN tribunal in March challenging Chinese claims to most of the strategic sea. Aquino said he would discuss the case's regional implications with fellow ASEAN leaders meeting in Myanmar. (READ: ASEAN leaders meet as high-seas tensions rise)
"We wish to emphasize, uphold and follow the rule of law in resolving these territorial issues so that the rights of all countries involved will be recognized and respected," Aquino said in a speech at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Pasay City.
Even though not all ASEAN members are involved in maritime territorial disputes with China, Aquino said the issue concerned the security of the region as a whole.
"This step mirrors our belief that an issue that affects all countries in the region cannot be effectively resolved merely through a dialogue between two countries," he added. (READ: Aquino to push for Code of Conduct in ASEAN meet)
ASEAN ministers have recommended that the regional bloc issue a "collective response to the situation in the form of a united position," said Vietnam deputy foreign minister Pham Quang Vinh.
The statement is expected to be issued by Myanmar, the chair of this year's summit, on Sunday, May 11. ASEAN officials are likely to discuss the issue during their Saturday, May 10, meeting in preparation for the summit the next day.
It is yet to be decided if the response to China will be included in Myanmar's statement or as a stand-alone statement.
Sihasak Phuangketkeow, secretary of Thailand's Foreign Ministry gave assurances that the response would be "constructive" and reflective of "our common concern."
Not too long ago, harsh words were exchanged between the Philippines and Cambodia in 2012, over the non-issuance of a joint communique on the South China Sea issue at the end of a July 2012 foreign ministers' summit in Phnom Penh.
Myanmar is hosting the two-day meeting amid a flare-up of high-seas tensions between ASEAN members Vietnam and the Philippines and regional superpower China, also one of their main economic partners.
China claims most of the South China Sea, including waters and rocks close to the shores of its neighbors, and the Philippines and Vietnam have both accused Beijing of increasingly aggressive moves to assert its claims.
These claims also overlap those of Taiwan, as well as ASEAN members Brunei and Malaysia. The sea is crisscrossed by fishing and shipping lanes and is thought to contain huge oil and gas reserves.
Hanoi said this week that Chinese ships that had surrounded a Chinese deep-water oil rig in waters claimed by Vietnam had used water cannon against, as well as rammed, Vietnamese patrol vessels there.
Manila, China tensions
Meanwhile, Manila arrested 11 crew members of a Chinese-flagged fishing boat Tuesday for poaching hundreds of protected marine turtles in waters that are part of the Philippines' exclusive economic zone.
China has rejected arbitration in the Philippines' UN case, preferring to settle the issue through bilateral negotiations while insisting its sovereignty over these areas was "indisputable."
The other ASEAN members are Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, Singapore and Thailand.
The weekend summit in Naypyidaw follows a visit to Asia late last month by US President Barack Obama when he restated support for Asian allies the Philippines and Japan, which is locked in its own maritime territorial dispute with China.
More than 5,000 US and Filipino troops are currently engaged in annual war games in the Philippines, with a focus on maritime security.
Aquino and his delegation arrived at Nay Pyi Taw International Airport at 3:32 pm (local time) onboard Philippine Airlines flight PR001.
The President was welcomed by Philippine officials led by Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario, Philippine Ambassador to Myanmar Alex Chua, Defense and Armed Forces Attache Colonel Edgardo de Leon, and Maria Lourdes Salcedo, deputy head of mission Philippine Embassy in Yangon.
Myanmar officials at the airport included were U Than Htay, Union Minister for Rail Transportation; U Ye Myint Aung, Ambassador of Myanmar to the Philippines; U Thurein Thant Zin, Director-General Protocol, Ministry of Foreign Affairs; and Han Wing Naing, Deputy Director, Economic Department, Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Liaison Officer to the President).
The presidential delegation included Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima, Palace Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr, Mindanao Development Authority Chair Luwalhati Antonino, Presidential Management Staff head Julia Abad and Speaker Sonny Belmonte. – with reports by Bea Cupin/Rappler.com