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Analysis

China rides roughshod on neighbors

The Philippines and the United States on Saturday jointly expressed concern over recent incidents in the South China Sea that “threaten freedom of navigation in disputed waters,” an apparent reference to China’s increasing assertiveness in pressing its territorial claims in the region.

In a joint statement at the conclusion of bilateral talks in Washington on March 6-7 ahead of US President Barack Obama’s visit to the Philippines and the Asia-Pacific region in April, the two allies “emphasized the importance of upholding peace and stability, respect for international law, unimpeded commerce, and freedom of navigation and overflight.”

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Although the statement did not directly refer to China and did not specify any “developments,” it clearly referred to China’s enforcement at the start of the year of a new fisheries law requiring foreign vessels to first seek its permission before exploring waters it considered part of its territory and the water cannon attack by Chinese Coast Guard vessels on two Philippine fishing boats on the Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal) on Jan. 27.

The Obama visit is expected to determine up to what extent the United States will back the Philippines in defending its territory from further Chinese incursions.

Diplomatic solution

The joint statement called for a “diplomatic” solution and, expressing concern that some “certain assertions” made were “vague,” said claimant nations should clarify their claims.

Without directly referring to it, the Philippines and the United States publicly rejected China’s nine-dash line claim in the South China Sea, saying it “lacked legal basis.”

The statement emphasized that maritime claims in the South China Sea must be derived from land features in accordance with the international law of the sea, as reflected in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos).

Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam, Taiwan and the Philippines claim parts of the South China Sea, but China claims 90 percent of the 3.5-million-square kilometer regional waterway.

The Philippines invoked the Unclos in bringing its territorial dispute with China to the United Nations for arbitration in January last year. The petition asked the UN arbitration tribunal to declare China’s nine-dash line claim invalid and to stop Chinese incursions into the West Philippine Sea.

China has refused to participate in the arbitration, insisting it has “indisputable sovereignty” over the South China Sea.

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Bilateral talks

While the Philippines and the United States have both called for the immediate conclusion of a binding code of conduct through multilateral negotiations between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and China to prevent rival claims from erupting into confrontations, China has insisted on bilateral negotiations, a mode that gives it the advantage of picking off its weaker neighbors one by one.

Nothing illustrates China riding roughshod on its neighbors more vividly than a report by the Inquirer on March 7 about Chinese ships harvesting giant clams and corals to fill their black-and-red mother ship at Bajo de Masinloc (Panatag Shoal), off the Zambales coast, with impunity. Nearby, three Chinese Coast Guard vessels stood guard.

An Inquirer photographer took pictures showing the steady presence at Bajo de Masinloc of Chinese vessels, which number from three to five at any given time, indicating how the Chinese have effectively seized the shoal.

There was no Philippine Coast Guard vessel in the area. But the Inquirer reported that while the Naval Forces Northern Luzon regularly monitors the shoal, it does not intervene, raising the question who is guarding Philippine territory and protecting Filipino fishermen.

Arrogant response

In an arrogant response to the US strategic security policy of a “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific region, China last week called on the United States to accept its growing security presence in East Asia and warned its neighbors that it would “respond  effectively” to safeguard its territorial integrity amid simmering maritime disputes in the region.

The Financial Times reported from Beijing that Fu Ying, spokesperson for the National People’s Congress, said, “If the US cares about peace and prosperity, it should support China’s aspirations for safeguarding territorial integrity and regional peace.”

The remarks, which came ahead of the parliamentary meeting, reflects China’s growing weariness with US regional dominance, particularly as Washington continues to press its “pivot” to Asia defense policy, which will see 60 percent of US warships deploying to the region by the end of the decade.

“The US has stated publicly that it has no plans to contain China,” Fu said. “We want to see if words are matched by actions.”

If any country “provokes or undermines security” in the region, Fu said, then China would “respond effectively to safeguard its territorial integrity and regional security.”

Fu did not specifically mention Japan, the Financial Times pointed out, but Beijing and Tokyo are engaged in an increasingly tense dispute over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.

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TAGS: China, foreign relations, Japan, Philippines, sea dispute, South China Sea, territorial row, US
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