The Philippines’ top diplomat assured lawmakers in Manila on Monday that a code of conduct being negotiated between Southeast Asian nations and Beijing would not keep Western powers out of the South China Sea.
Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. delivered the message during congressional budget deliberations, days after China indirectly called on the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to resist U.S. interference in the contested waterway.
“I can swear to you: Western powers will be in the South China Sea,” Locsin told Congress. “We believe in the balance of power, that the freedom of Filipino people depends on the balance of power in the South China Sea.
“China’s demand to exclude Western powers from the South China Sea – that I will never allow,” Locsin said. “The Western powers must be present in the South China Sea as a balancer.”
Locsin’s statement was a rebuke of the Chinese embassy’s call last week when it urged Southeast Asian nations to resist U.S. influence as they try to establish a Code of Conduct in the maritime region. The code would lay out guidelines for how territorial claimants to the sea must behave.
“A certain country outside the region is bent on interfering in the disputes in the South China Sea and the COC [Code of Conduct] consultations to serve its own geopolitical agenda. How to resist the interference is crucial for pushing the future consultation of COC,” China’s embassy in Manila said in a statement without identifying the rival superpower by name.
Locsin, in a separate statement on Twitter, responded by saying that the COC being developed was something everyone could agree on, “friends and enemies alike.”
ASEAN and China have been negotiating a COC for nearly two decades. In 2002, the regional bloc and Beijing signed a Declaration of Conduct in which they expressed their willingness to settle disputes in the sea peacefully.
Since then, Beijing has claimed ownership over nearly the entire South China Sea, including areas that encroach on the exclusive economic zones of other countries, citing historical rights and its so-called Nine-Dash Line boundary that appears on Chinese maritime maps.
In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague struck down China’s claims after the Philippines sought international intervention because Beijing effectively seized control of Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea in 2012.
Apart from China and the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei, and Taiwan have overlapping claims in the maritime region.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, however, has chosen to build up relations with China and ignored the ruling.
US rejects China claims
Tensions between China and the United States have been on the rise as Washington has rejected Beijing’s claims in the region.
Last week, U.S. Assistant State Secretary David Stilwell accused China of bullying Southeast Asian nations into choosing between Beijing and Washington.
“We are, though, insisting that countries be allowed to choose their own sovereignty, things that allow them to continue in ways that they see fit. And if you look at the record, if you look at the bullying behavior we’ve seen in the South China Sea and elsewhere … the Chinese are forcing a choice,” Stilwell told reporters on Sept. 15.
“[Y]ou will note that the United States has maintained its presence in the region and demonstrated our resolve to prevent unwelcome and certainly unhelpful military adventurism.”
Meanwhile, a defense analyst at an NGO think tank in the U.S. told the South China Morning Post (SCMP) that the Philippines was significant because of Manila’s standing as Washington’s only treaty ally with “direct involvement in the South China Sea disputes.”
Derek Grossman, a defense analyst with the Rand Corp., pointed to the importance of the U.S. having access to military bases in the Philippines.
The relationship with Manila gives the U.S. “a power projection point that is in the immediate vicinity of the South China Sea that would be extremely valuable in a future conflict,” Grossman told SCMP in an article published Monday. “The U.S. could manage without access to Philippine bases, but its power projection into the South China Sea would become more difficult and perhaps less rapid.”
Kang Lin, a research fellow at China’s Hainan University, told SCMP that Chinese leaders nurtured their relationship with Rodrigo Duterte because of Manila’s long-standing relationship with Washington. Since Duterte took office in June 2016, China and the Philippines have agreed to investments valued at billions of dollars and have taken steps to ease South China Sea tensions, according to Kang.
“When disputes over fishing or oil exploration rights have broken out between rival claimants in the disputed waterway, the Philippines has played a key role in helping to reduce the pressure on China,” Kang said. “It is very important to Beijing’s South China Sea strategy.”
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