Monday, January 26, 2015


China’s activities in the South China Sea, not surprisingly figured prominently in the fifth Philippines-United States Bilateral Strategic Dialogue held Tuesday and Wednesday in Manila.

The joint statement on the meeting, co-chaired by Undersecretary of Foreign Affairs Evan P. Garcia and Undersecretary of National Defense Pio Lorenzo F. Batino for the Philippines and by Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel and Assistant Secretary of Defense David Shear for the United States, stated that “ The two sides expressed concern over developments in the South China Sea that are inconsistent with the 2002 Asean-China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) and international law and emphasized the importance of upholding peace and stability, respect for international law, unimpeded lawful commerce, and freedom of navigation and overflight. “

The joint statement further said: “The two sides reiterated that international disputes in the South China Sea should be settled in accordance with international law, and through diplomatic and other peaceful means, including the use of international arbitration.

“We expressed concern about the ambiguity and potential breadth of some maritime claims and 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). The two sides expressed opposition to unilateral measures that escalate tensions in the region.”

In a pre-departure interview at the NAIA1 VIP lounge, we asked Russel if the reclamations and constructions being done by China in the features (islets, reefs and rocks) that they have occupied are risks to freedom of navigation, which China also says they adhere to.

Russel said, “That will the depend on what actions the Chinese is going to take in the future. “

An article by Beina Xu in the Council on Foreign Relations website states the importance of the South China Sea lanes: “As much as 50 percent of global oil tanker shipments pass through the South China Sea, which sees three times more tanker traffic than the Suez Canal and more than five times that of the Panama Canal, making the waters one of the world’s busiest international sea lanes. More than half of the world’s top ten shipping ports are also located in and around the South China Sea, according to the International Association of Ports and Harbors. As intra-Asean trade has markedly increased–from 29 percent of total ASEAN trade in 1980 to 41 percent in 2009–maintaining freedom of navigation has become of paramount importance for the region.”

The same article said quoted Dr. Yann-Huei Song, a fellow at Academia Sinica in Taiwan saying that making sure that the South China Sea lanes are unimpeded “is a very important issue, and has become the main concern of Japan, the United States and even right now the European Union.”

 Yann-Huei also said “China is unlikely to instigate an interruption in traffic because its business, exploration, and importation rely entirely on freedom of navigation as well. “

Russel said “The simple point is that the ongoing reclamation and construction contribute to friction and make it harder, not easier, for claimants and countries in the region to find a diplomatic resolution to the territorial disputes.”

We asked him to clarify what we see as inconsistency in the public statements of concern of US officials on China’s aggressive activities in the South China Sea and yet they have not made any position on the territorial claims in the area.

Russel said, “The principle of peaceful resolutions of disputes is very important. That is what we support. We do not take a position on the merits of the claims of sovereignty of the land features in the South China Sea. We do not back the Philippines against China or China against (other countries) in Asia. We do not take a position on the ultimate resolution of the territorial claims.”

Although the US supports the right of the Philippines to avail of international legal mechanisms as it did when it filed a complaint before the United National Arbitral Tribunal questioning China nine-dash line map, Russel stressed the US does not  support the content of the Philippine claim. “We do not take a position on the merits of the case. That’s for the experts in the international tribunal in the Hague to resolve.”

We asked Russel to comment on the thawing of the once frosty relations between the Philippines and China after the meeting of President Aquino and Chinese President Xi Jinping during the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Beijing last November.

The State department official said, The United States, first and foremost, supports benefits of improved relations among the countries in East Asia. We would like to see China have a constructive relations with all of its neighbors. If there is progress in Philippine-China relations coming out of last APEC and leading up to this year’s APEC which President Aquino will host, we would be pleased and we support.

At the same time, Russel said “Friendly relations do not mean compromising principles and the commitment of the Aquino government to the sanctity of the rule of law. And the principle of peaceful resolutions of disputes is very important. That is what we support.”

On whether the killing of transgender Jennifer Laude by US Marine Private First Class Scott Joseph Pemberton who was in the Philippines on a military exercise dented Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, which is being questioned in the Supreme Court, Russel said they are two different cases.

He said, “The Pemberton incident was really tragic. We are committed to full cooperation with Philippine authorities. We are committed to seeing justice. It’s also important to remember that however horrific the incident was, there are thousands and thousands, tens of thousands US military people regularly visit the Philippines, enjoy tremendous Philippine hospitality. The United States is deeply committed to discipline and responsible behavior by all uniformed military personnel. This is absolute priority I know for the defense department t as well as for the President of the United States.”

EDCA, meanwhile, Russel said is an agreement between the United States and the Philippines to cooperate. “We both agree on the importance of expanding that cooperation in ways that serve the interest of the Philippines, the United States and the region. EDCA is all about on how we can work together closely and more effectively.”
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