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Yasay explains South China Sea award at confirmation hearing

Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. said that he is not optimistic that the South China Sea dispute will be resolved during the term of President Rodrigo Duterte. Office of Sen. Ping Lacson/Released

MANILA, Philippines — The official position of the Philippine government on the disputed features in the South China Sea is that it has legal possession but does not have ownership, Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. said.

In his confirmation hearing before the Committee of Appointments, the country's top diplomat that Manila's protest against China before the Permanent Court of Arbitration did not include ownership claims over the disputed territory.

"The official position of the Philippines so far as certain features like Pag-asa (Island) that is occupied by us is that we have possession, legal possession of this territory and it can bloom into ownership, it can bloom into part of our territory when the appropriate arbitral tribunal in international law will be able to make a determination on that basis," Yasay told the panel.

On July 12, 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled in favor of the Philippines, concluding that China violated its commitment to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

The award, however, does not mention "possession" or "ownership" of the disputed features but acknowledges the Philippines' jurisdiction over them. The tribunal did not recognize the features as islands which are therefore not entitled to an exclusive economic zone or continental shelf.

Yasay also said that the landmark decision of the arbitral tribunal was not a ruling on territorial ownership or sovereignty that the country exercises over the disputed area.

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"It is just simply a ruling on the basis of the 1982 UNCLOS that we have exclusive use and exploitation of both living and non-living resources in this area without passing into the legal issue of who owns these territories," Yasay said.

He added that the arbitration case was simply a determination of whether or not the disputed area was part of the country's exclusive economic zone.

The Philippines has yet to prove its ownership claim over the disputed islands in an appropriate tribunal, the Foreign Affairs secretary said.

Personal belief

Yasay, however, personally believes that the Philippines owns the disputed islands.

"I personally believe that we own these islands. The official position of government did not include a categorical claim that we own this insofar as filing our case before the arbitral tribunal is concerned," the secretary said.

Foreign vessels may still access the disputed area as it is part of international areas provided that they do not prohibit the Philippines from exercising its jurisdiction to explore and utilize the resources in the area.

On the other hand, the Philippines may resort to the use of force and ask for the help from the United States if China encroaches into the country's territory, Yasay said.

"If China was going to engage in provocative actions, in encroaching into our 12-mile territorial limit, which is recognized by international law to be part of Philippine territory, in that case that will be the action where we will have to make sure we will be asserting ourselves, defending ourselves, even using force if necessary. And that will incidentally also kick in the coming into play of our mutual defense treaty with the United States," the secretary said.

Yasay admitted that he is not optimistic that the South China Sea dispute will be resolved during President Rodrigo Duterte's term or in his lifetime.

Meanwhile, Yasay's counterparts in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have expressed concern over Beijing's activities in the South China Sea.

During their retreat in Boracay on Tuesday, the ASEAN foreign ministers called for a continuous dialogue between concerned parties in resolving the issue.

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