MANILA // The Philippines urged Beijing on Thursday to respect an international tribunal’s ruling that rejected Chinese claims to most of the South China Sea, as China vowed a “decisive response” to provocations in the disputed waters.
The Philippines, which launched the legal challenge, called for China to respect the decision and defied Chinese objections by saying it would raise the issue at a summit of Asian and European leaders in Mongolia starting on Friday.
The escalation raised the prospects of conflict in the region as Beijing reacted furiously to Tuesday’s verdict by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, insisting it will ignore the decision while warning its rivals too much pressure on the issue could turn the resource-rich and strategically vital waterway into a “cradle of war”.
The Philippines had initially refrained from asking China to abide by the ruling, following president Rodrigo Duterte’s directive to achieve a “soft landing” with the Philippines’ much more powerful Asian neighbour.
But Manila hardened its stance on Thursday with a statement detailing foreign secretary Perfecto Yasay’s priorities when he attends an Asia-Europe summit, known as Asem, in Mongolia this week along with Chinese premier Li Keqiang.
“Secretary Yasay will discuss within the context of Asem’s agenda the Philippines’ peaceful and rules-based approach on the South China Sea and the need for parties to respect the recent decision,” the foreign affairs department said.
Even just raising the issue at the two-day summit starting on Friday will anger China, which has long bridled at Philippine efforts to have the dispute discussed at multilateral events.
Chinese assistant foreign minister Kong Xuanyou insisted on Monday the Asem summit was “not an appropriate venue” to discuss the South China Sea.
But China appears to be in the minority. Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe also said as he left for Mongolia on Thursday that he wanted to discuss the South China Sea at the summit.
Meanwhile, diplomats from South-east Asia said they will not issue a statement on the rejection of Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea, blaming the no-comment on pressure by Beijing.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) had weighed whether to speak out on Tuesday’s ruling by the UN-back tribunal, said Southeast Asian diplomats with knowledge of the matter.
But 10-member Asean, whose unity has been increasingly strained in the face of Chinese expansionism, could not find common ground, they said.
“Asean officials had prepared a draft text but there was no agreement to release a joint statement,” said a South-east Asian diplomat, adding that China was believed to have leaned on its Asean allies Laos and Cambodia to prevent a statement in the highly charged affair.
China claims nearly all of the sea — which is of immense military importance and through which about $5 trillion worth of shipping trade passes annually — even waters approaching the coasts of the Philippines and other Southeast Asian nations.
Asean members such as the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei, have competing claims to parts of the resource-rich sea.
While the Philippines and Vietnam have been particularly critical of China, Laos and Cambodia are generally regarded as preferring to side with their giant neighbour and benefactor.
Asean has in recent years released joint statements expressing increasing alarm over South China Sea island-building, while taking care not to single out China.
* Agence France-Presse