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World | National

West PHL Sea a 'core national interest' amid bid to repair ties with China – DFA chief
The online news portal of TV5

MANILA, Philippines - The Philippines is working hard to boost its bilateral relations with China, but the West Philippine Sea, which is a “focus of concern” not just for Manila but for the global community, remains a “core national interest” about which it would not hesitate to speak up to protect its rights, Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario said on Thursday. 

And, he added, Manila will continue to follow a “rules-based approach” laid down by President Benigno Aquino III.

While emphasizing that the WPS issue does not constitute the sum total of Philippine-China relations, the DFA chief said Manila is taking definitive steps to build a “minimum credible defense posture” to defend its boundaries and maritime sovereignty.

“Undoubtedly, we are at a very challenging period in our relations, but as we have said before, the issue in the West Philippine Sea does not constitute the sum total of our relations with China. While we are working to strengthen other areas of the bilateral relations, we will not hesitate to speak out to protect our legitimate national interest,” del Rosario said in a prepared speech during a forum of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C, live-streamed online for diplomatic reporters in the Philippines.

“Our posture is and will remain entirely defensive in this regard,” according to del Rosario.

Earlier, before flying to Washington to attend the United Nations General Assembly, he confirmed that three Chinese government ships remained anchored in the vicinity of Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal, even though Philippine Coast Guard ships had left the sea since June.

“There was an agreement between the two countries that ships will be pulled out from the shoal. The Philippines pulled out their ship but the Chinese did not comply with the agreement,” Del Rosario told the forum.

Philippine agencies are just waiting for the order of the President on whether to send back their ships.

"We believe they should do this and of course if they continue to violate Philippine sovereign rights in that area, then we will have to consider a response. We do not know what that response is just yet," he said, adding that Manila is still assessing the situation.

Rules-based approach applies

Meanwhile, all of its actions will be guided by the “rules-based approach,” which he described as the “only legitimate and viable way” to address the issue.

He said, “The West Philippine Sea remains focus of concern for the Philippines, for the region and for international community.  The WPS is naturally a core national interest of the Philippines.  As we have maintained many times before, a rules-based approach is the only legitimate and viable way to address the WPS issue.” 

The Philippines formulated a comprehensive three-track foreign policy strategy to implement a rules-based approach, del Rosario said. The three tracks are political, diplomatic and legal.

For the political track, he said, the Philippine’s objective is to transform the area into a Zone of Peace, Freedom, Friendship and Cooperation (ZoPFF/C).

“We want to establish an actionable framework to define, clarify, and segregate, in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the disputed and non-disputed areas of the West Philippine Sea.  This would pave the way for feasible cooperation between ASEAN and China in the medium-term,” he said.

For the diplomatic track, the Philippines continues to keep open its channels of discussions with China.

“Last month, we travelled to Beijing where we had the occasion to meet with my counterpart, Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi. This shows that high-level contact is being maintained,” he cited.

For the legal track, del Rosario said, the Philippine will continue to evaluate the possible availment of the dispute settlement mechanisms under UNCLOS.

“Given the many interests involved, furthermore, the Philippines maintains the utility of submitting maritime disputes in the region, including the WPS, to multilateral discussions in appropriate fora, in accordance with international law, specifically UNCLOS. These parameters have the full support of many countries including the United States, Australia, Japan, the European Union, the Republic of Korea, New Zealand, and our various ASEAN neighbors,” he said.

Very important, too, the DFA chief stressed, are the global implications of  the region's maritime disputes. Recognizing this, Manila is looking to make the broader public understand what is happening in the disputed sea. 

The Philippines, with these moves, hopes to do its share to maintain peace among the regional players while pursuing its sovereign rights over the disputed sea.

The U.S. has a vested interest in the long-term peace and stability of the region.

“But let me make it clear: our foreign policy does not seek to isolate one country, nor even force the resolution of a dispute.  Our core interest lies in being able to contribute to ensuring that the global security and economic system is based firmly on the rule of law. We are firmly committed to helping build an international system that will be just and fair to all states, regardless of economic size or power,” the envoy stressed.

The Philippines and China have been locked in a tense territorial dispute in the West Philippine Sea, described as a potential flashpoint for military conflict.

The standoff began early April when two Chinese maritime surveillance ships blocked the BRP Gregorio del Pilar from apprehending Chinese poachers in the shoal, a mere 124 nautical miles from Masinloc municipality in Zambales province.

Beijing lays claims to virtually the entire West Philippine Sea, including the coastal waters of neighboring countries.

The Philippines, however, maintained its sovereignty over the land and water features that fall within its 200-nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) as provided for by UNCLOS.