MANILA, Philippines - The Philippines yesterday called on Malaysia, Vietnam and other claimants to join its legal challenge to China’s massive territorial claim in the South China Sea.
In a bold step, Filipino officials took their territorial disputes with China to international arbitration in January last year after Chinese government ships took control of Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal off Zambales.
They asked the international tribunal to declare China’s claim to about 80 percent of the strategic waters and Beijing’s seizure of eight South China Sea and West Philippine Sea shoals and reefs illegal. China has ignored the legal challenge but the tribunal has proceeded and asked the Philippines to submit its “memorial” or legal arguments and evidence by March 30.
Solicitor General Francis Jardeleza said Malaysia, Vietnam and two other governments could either take part in the Philippine case or file their own complaints against China.
Smaller countries, he said, can only have a chance to peacefully defend their territories against the Asian superpower in a legal arena.
“Where can the weak go?” Jardeleza asked in a forum on the territorial disputes.
“We are here to prove that from the point of view of the rule of law, all of the actions and all of the claims of China are ... invalid.”
China, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam have overlapping claims across the busy South China Sea.
Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario said yesterday the Philippines “is working with full resolve” to submit the memorial or written argument on its case to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) on or before March 30.
“Our fishermen have all the rights to fish in that area in Bajo de Masinloc. Bajo de Masinloc is an integral part of the Philippine territory and we are entitled to the resources there and Bajo de Masinloc is also where we exercise sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction over that area,” DFA spokesman Raul Hernandez said. Bajo de Masinloc is the local name of Panatag Shoal.
“When we decided to bring the nine-dash line to arbitral tribunal it was based on our assessment of our national interest. Other countries will also have to make a decision on this based on the assessment of their national interest and we will respect their decision on this,” Hernandez said.
The disputes have periodically erupted into dangerous confrontations, sparking tensions and straining ties.
Law professor Raul Pangalangan told the forum that the Philippines wanted China to explain the limits and basis of its vast claims.
China, Jardeleza said, could still change its mind and join the arbitration, which would take at least two years to conclude.
China has asked the other claimants to settle the disputes through one-on-one negotiations, something that would give it advantage because of its sheer size and clout. It has also warned Washington not to get involved.
The Philippines may include recent aggressive Chinese acts in its complaint, including what it said was the firing of a water cannon by a Chinese coast guard ship to drive away Filipino fishermen from Panatag Shoal on Jan. 27, Jardeleza said.
China has controlled the shoal since Philippine vessels backed off from a tense standoff there in 2012. Chinese coast guard and surveillance ships have guarded the territory and chased away Filipino fishermen if they ventured close to the shoal.
After the Philippines raised the Jan. 27 incident publicly, the Chinese embassy in Manila responded that Beijing “has indisputable sovereignty over South China Sea islands and their adjacent waters,” Panatag Shoal included.
No order for deployment
As China vows to continue enforcing its maritime rules in the West Philippine Sea, Malacañang clarified it has not ordered the deployment of cost guard vessels to Panatag Shoal.
Deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte told reporters in a press briefing yesterday it would be up to the Department of National Defense to make a decision whether to send vessels to Panatag. The PCG, a civilian entity, is under the Department of Transportation and Communications.
“None that I know of, in specifics,” Valte said when asked if there is a Palace directive on the matter. “I understand that the secretary of national defense has already spoken of the approach that they have adopted. But the military will be in a better position to give you the details on that particular approach.”
Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin on Thursday said a “white on white” response to China’s continued aggression may be needed to assert the Philippines’ rights without heightening tensions in the region.
“In case CCG (Chinese Coast Guard) vessel will persist (in using) water cannon, our response should be calibrated, where we will have the Philippine Coast Guard so as to maintain ‘white on white’ response and not to heighten the tension,” the defense chief said, referring to the internationally accepted color of coast guard ships.
The PCG, through spokesman Armand Balilo, said Thursday it would be up to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Malacañang to decide whether to allow the deployment of Coast Guard personnel to Panatag Shoal.
“The Coast Guard has been on constant patrol, but given the size of the country, as well as our geographic formation plus – vis-à-vis the resources that we have, they cannot admittedly do this, they patrol to the best of what they have and to the best of their abilities, but given limitations, I think it’s quite obvious that they cannot surround the entire country at the same time,” Valte said.
Valte said the situation “varies on a day to day basis” and the PCG would know when or where to deploy vessels.
Told that it was from the DFA or Malacañang that the PCG was willing to take orders regarding any deployment due to the political nature of the problem, Valte said: “Balilo was correct when he said that yes, we are pursuing diplomatic solutions to this, and that all the agencies that are involved are working hand in hand to at least have a consistent policy, because of the decision that we’ve made to pursue dispute resolution peacefully.”
Valenzuela City Rep. Sherwin Gatchalian joined the chorus of condemnation of China’s water cannon attack on Filipino fishermen at Panatag Shoal.
He said the “act of harassment” by China’s coast guard violated the 2007 China-Philippines Memorandum of Understanding on Broadening and Deepening Agriculture and Fisheries Cooperation.
“The use of water cañons to drive away Filipino fishermen in the disputed Bajo de Masinloc technically is a violation of the 2007 fishery agreement, which allows shared cooperation and joint management of marine resources in the West Philippine Sea,” he said.
“China’s use of force against our fishermen is simply unacceptable. Its continued aggression is creating instability in the region. They should submit to the arbitration case the Philippines filed before the United Nations,” he said.
Gatchalian called on China to follow the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, to which it is a signatory.
He said signatory-nations are required to resolve disputes via an arbitration process.
China signed the convention in 1996, more than a decade after the Philippines signed it in 1984.
At the same time, the former Valenzuela City mayor urged members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to strengthen security cooperation among themselves amid China’s increasing aggressiveness in pursuing its territorial claim over the entire South China Sea.
He said such cooperation could be in the form of joint military exercises, intelligence exchange and consultations.
“We should strengthen our defense cooperation with other ASEAN nations. Acting as a group will give the ASEAN more leverage against China’s aggression,” he said.
“One country alone may not be enough to dampen China’s efforts in pushing for its claims. It is time for the ASEAN member-states to stand together and put aside differences,” he said.
The Chinese embassy has defended the water cannon attack on Filipino fishermen, saying Panatag Shoal is part of China’s territory even if it is at least 550 miles away from Hainan island, the closest Chinese landmass, compared to its mere 124-mile distance from Zambales.
“This puts the shoal under the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone following the UNCLOS, which gives the country the right over its economic resources,” Gatchalian said.
He said China’s claim over a rock formation that is much closer to the Philippines than to the nearest Chinese island is absurd and is not defensible before an arbitration tribunal. The militant fisherfolk alliance Pambansang Lakas ng Kilusang Mamamalakaya ng Pilipinas (Pamalakaya) also denounced China for its hostile acts on Jan. 27, saying Panatag Shoal “legally, politically, geographically belongs to Filipino people, and this is a fact and not a bluff.” – Aurea Calica, Pia Lee-Brago, Jess Diaz, Michelle Zoleta, AP