US slams Beijing’s wholesale reclamation

Pia Lee-Brago - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines - The United States has slammed the “wholesale reclamation” being undertaken by Beijing in the South China Sea, saying it is the “source of clear anxiety and instability” in the contested region.

In a press conference at the New York Foreign Press Center on Sept. 26, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russel said the US talked to China about the importance of behavior, whether it has to do with the movement of military ships or with the promulgation of unilateral rules that purport to exercise authority over what is regarded by others as contested area or international space.

“We have spoken and continue to speak directly to each of the claimants, particularly the Chinese, about our concerns over reclamation work. That means digging up the bottom of the sea, creating landfill to build out what are essentially rocks or shoals into a large enough territory to hold facilities of various types,” Russel said.

“Now, China is by no means the only country that has undertaken this. But the scale, scope and pace of China’s reclamation work vastly exceeds that of others and is the source of clear anxiety and instability, neither of which are contributing to the kind of region that we and, I think, China wants,” he added.

Earlier, China imposed a unilateral moratorium on fishing in some areas of the South China Sea, infringing on the legitimate sovereign rights of the Philippines and other coastal states to their exclusive economic zones.

China has also undertaken massive land reclamation activities in Johnson Reef, McKennan and Hughes Reef, Cuarteron Reef and Gaven Reef in the Spratlys in the last two years.

Russel noted that territorial disputes are issues of concern not only to the US, but to the entire region.

Although no amount of landfill or reclamation has the slightest effect on the legal status of a rock under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to which China is a party, Russel said the wholesale reclamation is an example of unilateral action that changes the status quo.

“And changing the status quo or pursuing actions that make it more difficult to reach a peaceful and diplomatic solution is not only undesirable, but runs directly counter to the commitments that China and the 10 ASEAN countries made back in 2002 in paragraph five of their declaration of conduct,” he pointed out.

Russel also maintained that the South China Sea dispute is not intrinsically a bilateral issue between China and the US and that Washington takes no position on the relative merits of sovereignty claims by China or other claimants to particular land features in the contested waters.

But he said the US holds the South China Sea issue as an important area of conversation both in its bilateral talks with China and in the appropriate regional fora, such as the ASEAN context, “because the net effect of problematic behavior by China or by others on the stability and the security of the Asia-Pacific region is hugely germane to US national security, as well as our global responsibilities.”

Last Monday, Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario raised before the general debate of the 69th session of the UN General Assembly the exacerbating tensions the Philippines faces in its regional seas and reiterated that Manila resorted to the rule of law in trying to resolve the tensions.

Without mentioning China, Del Rosario said the Philippines invited a state party to settle maritime disputes peacefully through UNCLOS, including its provisions on dispute settlement, specifically arbitration under Annex 7 of the Convention.

However, the state party has refused to join the Philippines and has continued to unilaterally embark on an expansionist claim that violates the legitimate rights of the Philippines and other littoral neighbors under UNCLOS such as their exclusive economic zones and continental shelf.

“Instead of peacefully resolving the maritime disputes within the framework of UNCLOS, said state embarked on a series of dangerous, reckless and forceful activities in an attempt to impose unilateral change in the maritime status quo of the South China Sea,” Del Rosario said.

“These unilateral activities escalated the tensions and threatened the peace and stability of the South China Sea,” he added.

PHL seeks UN support for TAP

The Philippines has also sought the support of UN-member states for Manila’s proposed Triple Action Plan (TAP) in peacefully resolving the South China Sea dispute.

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