MANILA, Philippines - The House of Representatives is throwing its full support behind the move of the Aquino administration to elevate the country’s dispute with China over Panatag Shoal to the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea (ITLOS).
Speaker Feliciano Belmonte said he and other House leaders would jointly author and approve a bill formalizing the chamber’s support for the government’s move to question China’s claim over Philippine-held territories, particularly Panatag Shoal off Zambales.
“We fully support the move of the government on this,” he said, adding that the Senate is expected to approve a similar measure.
On Tuesday, the Philippines announced that it was asking a United Nations tribunal to order a halt to China’s incursions in the West Philippine Sea.
China’s claims over islands, reefs and atolls in resource-rich waters off its south coast and to the east of mainland Southeast Asia set it not only against the Philippines but also Vietnam, Brunei, Taiwan and Malaysia.
Cagayan de Oro Rep. Rufus Rodriguez, president of the Centrist Democratic Party (CDP), said he would file a joint resolution expressing support for the Philippine case.
“We have a very strong case and China’s claim has no basis in international law,” Rodriguez said in a telephone interview.
He said the government’s move would help prevent armed conflict in the region.
House Minority Leader and Quezon Rep. Danilo Suarez said the opposition bloc also fully supported the administration’s move.
“We in the minority fully support the decision of the administration in bringing our territorial dispute with China to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea Arbitral Tribunal,” Suarez said in a statement.
“As we have stated many times, we are a constructive minority. When it comes to our sovereignty, we will always side with our President and his decisions,” he said.
Vice President Jejomar Binay and the United Nationalist Alliance also voiced support for the government’s move. Binay chairs UNA.
“The filing of the case before the UN tribunal is an expression of our desire to resolve the dispute with China within the framework of international law,” Binay said.
“President Aquino is committed to protect our sovereignty and is likewise committed to resolving the dispute with China in a peaceful manner,” he said, adding that he hopes China would recognize whatever decision is made by the international court. “President Aquino has consistently defended our sovereignty against provocative moves by China,” UNA secretary general Toby Tiangco said.
But China said the Philippines’ move would only complicate the issue, and denounced Filipinos’ “illegal occupation” of Panatag Shoal.
“China has consistently opposed the Philippines’ illegal occupation,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a daily news briefing.
“We hope that the relevant country honors its promises, and ... does not take any action to complicate or expand the problem,” he said. He reiterated that China supports talks, but only on a bilateral basis, with the countries directly involved.
For Malacañang, bringing the issue to ITLOS should not ruin the country’s relations with China, its third biggest trading partner.
“We have an active engagement with China in other matters, in other fields, and so we abstract this issue of the West Philippine Sea from our RP (Republic of the Philippines)-China relations as whole and we believe that we can continue to move forward in our people-to-people engagement, in our trade relations with China,” presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said in a press briefing.
“This matter has been given over to the international tribunal and we’ll let the international tribunal decide on this matter. This is not the crux of our RP-China relations and certainly we do not intend and China itself does not intend to view the RP-China relations as the West Philippine Sea (being) our only issue,” Lacierda said.
He said that even new Chinese leader Xi Jinping agreed with visiting Interior and Local Government Secretary Manuel Roxas II that the issue “is not the end-all and be-all of China-RP relations.”
“We’ve already filed it so let’s… Magkita na lang tayo sa (Let’s just see each other in the) international tribunal,” Lacierda said, referring to Chinese embassy spokesperson Hua Zhang’s statement that the territorial disputes should be settled through bilateral negotiations and not through international arbitration.
While ITLOS ruling is binding, it has no power to enforce it. Lacierda said the Office of the Solicitor General would handle details of the case. “We filed it. They (UN) are bound to accept it and a case will be presented,” Lacierda said. “There would be a presentation of claims and China will be asked to respond,” Lacierda said.
Lacierda also noted UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s declaration that “it is important for those countries in the region to resolve all these issues through dialogue in a peaceful way” and that the UN is ready to provide technical and professional assistance.
“But primarily all these issues should be resolved by the parties concerned,” Lacierda said.
Only option left
He said that before the Philippines moved to seek international mediation, it had exhausted all efforts to make China stop its incursions.
“If you remember, we have adopted a three-way track – legal, political, and diplomatic – and we feel that now is the time to raise before the arbitral tribunal. This is, again, on the basis of a rules-based approach to resolving the issues in the West Philippine Sea,” Lacierda said.
“What we have taken, the steps we have taken, are based on international law. Therefore, as an arbitral tribunal dealing with international law on conflict situations, we expect (that) the international law will prevail and also China and the Philippines, being signatories to UNCLOS, we will observe the laws and the rules of UNCLOS,” he said.
“The Palace has taken the position that this is a rules-based approach. Our approach in going through the arbitral tribunal is the legal way that we have been saying and Secretary Del Rosario has the full confidence of the President – the President being the chief policymaker,” he said.
“You’ve seen the steps that we have taken. We’ve seen how we have tried to temp down the statements. We have not responded in some situations. We have allowed DFA to be our talking head insofar as dealing with China-Philippine relations are concerned as it should be,” he said. “Having exhausted all possible initiatives, we feel the time to act is now. If we do not act now, we will be in default,” Lacierda said.
Lacierda cited a DFA statement expressing the country’s strong position on the issue.
“In any legal action, however, there are many different factors to consider. What is more important is that we are able to present our case against China and defend our national interest and maritime domain before an independent international tribunal. We expect international law to be the great equalizer,” Lacierda said quoting the DFA.
“The Philippines and China have an incredible people-to-people engagement and we will look forward to enhance it through an effective tourism program,” he said. “(It’s) more fun in the Philippines. By the way, China just called us the ‘most romantic’ destination. So we are very romantic and we will continue to spread the romance to our Chinese friends,” he said.
Lacierda also said other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations would hopefully support the Philippine stand and push for a code of conduct in the West Philippine Sea and South China Sea. But he said it would be up to them to take action.
“International arbitration cases are normally a decision between two countries but it certainly will have effects on our neighboring countries. But it’s up to them. We cannot speak for the other countries,” he said.
Call for patriotism
After filing the UN case, the DFA appealed yesterday to Filipinos’ sense of patriotism saying “our action is in defense of our national territory and maritime domain.”
“All Filipinos should stand behind the President to defend what is ours in accordance with the Philippine Constitution. We should all firmly demonstrate our patriotism. We should all stand united as one before the whole world to manifest the President’s leadership on this issue,” the DFA said in a statement.
“We are pursuing this action in good faith. We want the arbitral panel to be thorough. We hope China will do the same,” Assistant Secretary Gilberto Asuque of the DFA Ocean Concerns Office said. A case filed with international tribunals normally take three to four years to resolve, based on records.
Eastern Samar Rep. Ben Evardone, for his part, said the DFA should hire top-caliber local and foreign lawyers to handle its case against China. He said Malacañang and the Department of Budget and Management should give the DFA the necessary funds so it could tap the services of topnotch experts in history and international law.
“We should not only hire lawyers. We should also get the expert opinion of historians knowledgeable on our claims over these disputed areas,” he said.
At the same time, Evardone urged the public to support the Aquino administration’s decision to resort to arbitration.
“All sectors of society should support and rally behind the move to assert our territorial claims over Panatag Shoal and other disputed islets. The most important thing is the support of all Filipinos here and around the world,” he said.
He said he was hopeful the arbitration court would rule in favor of the Philippines.
He said the administration would not have resorted to this process had China not obstinately refused to recognize the fact that Panatag is a lot closer to the Philippines than to China.
“This rock formation is just 120 miles off Zambales, while it is more than thrice that distance to the nearest Chinese province,” he added.
– With Aurea Calica, Pia Lee-Brago, Jose Rodel Clapano and Jess Diaz