Dispute with China continues; Philippines stands firm

Posted on April 18, 2012

THE PHILIPPINES has appealed to China to bring the discussions on the disputed Scarborough Shoal (locally referred to as Panatag Shoal and by China as Huangyan Island) to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS), even as China has demanded for the Philippines to withdraw its ships from the contested area.

For his part, Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) spokesperson Raul S. Hernandez said that the Philippines is more than ready to defend its position in ITLOS, and if China decides not to accept the invitation, it could only mean Beijing “is not ready to validate their claims.”

On Tuesday, Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert F. del Rosario issued a statement pushing for discussions to be brought up to the ITLOS to seek a diplomatic settlement.

“In pursuing a peaceful settlement of the Scarborough Shoal issue, we fully intend to humbly invite our Chinese friends to join us in the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea,” Mr. del Rosario said in his statement.

Mr. del Rosario pointed out that while China has “myriad more ships and aircraft than the Philippines,” the latter hopes “to demonstrate that international law would be the great equalizer.”

“China has yet to respond to our invitation to go to ITLOS for it to validate both our claims,” Mr. Hernandez said in a text message. However, he noted that the Chinese side had responded to the earlier diplomatic protest lodged by the Philippines over the harassment of nine French nationals aboard a National Museum-commissioned M/Y Sarangani “by saying the shoal is theirs,” and that the archeological surveillance ship must leave the area.

Nevertheless, Mr. Hernandez also said that “the vessel which has been authorized by the Philippine government through the National Museum will stay.”

“We are ready to validate our claims at ITLOS. If they are really confident of their position, then they should be willing to go as well,” Mr. Hernandez said in another text message.

Earlier, Zhang Hua, spokesperson for the Chinese embassy in the Philippines, said that the Philippine Coast Guard ship remaining at the shoal, as well as M/Y Sarangani, should withdraw, even as their surveillance vessels would “stay there to watch out the situation.”

“We urge the Philippine side to withdraw all of their vessels from Huangyan Island area, and restore peace and stability there,” said Mr. Zhang, in an e-mail to reporters on Tuesday morning.

“It is illegal to conduct salvage activities without the permission of the Chinese government. We urge the archeological vessel to leave the area immediately,” he added.

Mr. Zhang insisted that “the Chinese public service vessels are conducting legitimate patrols for law enforcement” in the area, which they insist has been historically part of China’s territory.

The Philippines has been insisting that Scarborough or Panatag Shoal, which is 124 nautical miles off Zambales, is within its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

“UNCLOS allows coastal states to claim a 200-nautical-mile EEZ, but coastal states have no right to infringe on the inherent territory and sovereignty of other countries,” was Mr. Zhang’s answer.

Sought for comment, Dr. Renato C. de Castro, professor of international relations at De La Salle University, said that the Philippines has no choice but to stand firm in its position.

“We have to stand our ground. If we withdraw the vessels, then China should do the same. It should be a mutual withdrawal,” said Mr. de Castro, in a phone interview.

The successive steps the Philippines had taken to assert its claims in the West Philippine Sea (WPS, also South China Sea) has irked China, he said.

“The Philippines decided it will continue its exploration in the Reed Bank. During the East Asia Summit, the Philippines brought up the dispute over the WPS. And in Phnom Penh, where originally the host country did not want to discuss the issue, the Philippines hijacked the talks [during the 20th Association of Southeast Asian Nations Summit],” Mr. de Castro said.

“China is in the mood to embarrass us, humiliate us; this is their form of coercive diplomacy... and not only to test the Philippines, but to test if the United States will respond. [From China’s point of view] the Philippines has to be taught a lesson, but it is also an indirect way of weakening America’s alliances, of testing their resolve,” he added.

As to whether China will attend to the Philippine proposition to bring the matter to ITLOS, Mr. de Castro reminded that “China signed UNCLOS with reservation with regard to its historical claim and international arbitration.”

“China is not bound by the UNCLOS provisions regarding these matters,” he said.

Whether or not the issue reaches ITLOS remains to be seen, Mr. de Castro said, but in the meantime, the United States should make its presence felt.

“The US would have to do something about it, as an ally. This is the pattern of Chinese behavior; they also did it with Japan and South Korea,” Mr. de Castro said naming two other countries with a defense pact with the US.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will likely not move as one on the continuing dispute, but the Philippines can approach the ASEAN members who are also claimant countries “individually.” -- Johanna D. Poblete