The online news portal of TV5
MANILA, Philippines - (UPDATE: 4:20 PM) President Benigno Aquino III on Monday met with Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario and Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin to discuss their upcoming trip to Washington by the end of the month, where the two are expected to bring up the recent tensions in Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal).
The two Cabinet officials are scheduled to meet their US counterparts, State Secretary Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said.
The 2 plus 2 meeting is the final step in scheduling Aquino's visit to Washington either in late May or early June.
Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin on Tuesday said he plans to discuss with Panetta in Washington, at month’s end, the territorial dispute with China. The latest trigger of the continuing row was the stand-off over fishing rights that began April 10 at Scarborough, just off Zambales province well within the Philippines’s exclusive economic zone.
The Philippine Navy warship BRP Gregorio del Pilar found corals, fish, whale sharks, clams and endangered species on eight Chinese fishing boats in the Panatag lagoon, but a Chinese maritime surveillance vessel came to the fishermen’s rescue, triggering the stand-off.
Gazmin said the meeting, scheduled on April 30, will focus on regional issues, bilateral ties, defense and economic cooperation.
How would China react?
Asked if the inclusion of the Scarborough standoff would be interpreted by China as unduly aggravating the situation in the disputed area, Foreign Affairs spokesman Raul Hernandez said that like the Balikatan joint military exercises between the United States and the Philippines, the 2+2 meeting was planned and scheduled before the Scarborough standoff happened.
The US and other countries in the region are interested in the issue because China's claim based on the so-called nine-dash line "poses a potential threat to the other countries with claims to (parts of or all of) the West Philippine Sea. The US is concerned also about the freedom of navigation and unimpeded commerce.
What would the Philippines ask from the United States? Hernandez said: "The agenda has not been firmed up."
Preparing for ITLOS
The Philippines is currently preparing to unilaterally raise its sovereign claim on the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) to the United Nations International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, or ITLOS, if Beijing refuses to accept Manila's invitation for arbitration.
"We are preparing to go to ITLOS alone should China reject our invitation. We shall continue to uphold our sovereignty and sovereign rights in the area," Foreign Affairs spokesman Raul Hernandez said.
"We can go there unilaterally if China is not prepared to come with us to validate its claims at this proper forum. Our legal team is now studying this option," Hernandez added.
China claims all of the West Philippine Sea as a historic right, even those well within the Philippines's 200-nautical mile EEZ recognized by the United Nations such as Panatag Shoal.
ITLOS is an independent judicial body established by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea to adjudicate disputes arising from the interpretation and application of maritime laws and agreements.
The tribunal, however, requires the concurrence of both parties involved in a dispute before an arbitration process can begin. Beijing has bluntly dismissed Manila’s offer to go to the ITLOS.
Hernandez admitted that bringing the issue to ITLOS unilaterally would result in a validation of Philippine sovereignty, but not in a ruling on the territorial dispute.