US affirms rule of law in South China Sea disputes

ASEAN+ March 30, 2016 01:00

By Supalak Ganjanakhundee
The Na

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Upcoming UN decision on manila’s case against beijing offers ‘real diplomatic solution’: top US official

The United States said yesterday an arbitration tribunal would make a ruling in the coming months on the Philippines’ maritime dispute with China, which would be binding for both parties and shed light on diplomatic opportunities to solve regional conflicts.
“The case itself does not actually involve the question who actually has sovereignty over the land features in the South China Sea, but [it] will make [an] important decision about maritime space, the right of claimants, regardless what the tribunal rules,” said Colin Willett, the US Department of State’s deputy assistant secretary of East Asian and Pacific affairs.
The Philippines and many other Asean members including Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia have been at loggerheads for years with their giant neighbour China over territorial disputes in the South China Sea. China claims a huge area of the sea, including archipelagos of islands, shoals, reefs and atolls.
While Asean members deal with Beijing on the disputes in different ways, Manila filed its case with the UN Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague in 2013. The tribunal ruled at the end of last October that the case was “properly constituted” under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos). The final judgment is expected soon.
The ruling will not only be binding for China and the Philippines but also narrow the scope of maritime spaces that are under dispute, Willet said in a telephone press conference from Washington with Asean journalists.
“Whatever the ruling is – our conversation [with] China is – [that the ruling is] not a threat but an opportunity for a real diplomatic solution,” she said.
Asked what would happen if China refused to accept the ruling, as it has repeatedly said it would do, Willet said Washington had made it clear to Beijing that it was in its interest to obey the ruling and to uphold international law that benefited not only the region but also China.
“If China ignored the ruling, it would set itself [up] for further confrontation with neighbours,” she said.
During the press conference, the senior US diplomat reaffirmed Washington’s stance on freedom of navigation and respect of international law, notably including Unclos. She voiced grave concerns over Chinese moves to claim land, build military facilities station military personnel on South China Sea outposts.
China’s argument that newly developed facilities were intended for civilian use did not make any sense, she said, adding that the facilities were designed for strategic purposes, not to facilitate cargo transport for humanitarian assistance or disaster relief.
Regarding Asean’s role in the conflict, Willet cited the Sunnylands Declaration issued after the US-Asean summit in California in February, which called on all concerned parties to adhere to peaceful solutions and a commitment to international law including the freedom of navigation.
“Asean understands more than anyone [what] the consequences for small and medium-sized countries [are] if the rule-based order is undermined,” she said.