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Follow India example, Manila tells China

Manila, Aug. 31: The Philippines has asked an “assertive China” to follow the examples of India and Bangladesh and agree to settle territorial disputes in the South China Sea through arbitration.

The statement comes at a time China has been allegedly expanding its reclamation of reefs in disputed waters, prompting the Philippines to enhance its defence preparedness.

Manila’s department of foreign affairs has accused Beijing of violating all norms by continuing its reclamation of four reefs — Mabini, Kannan, Calderon and Burgos — in the disputed Spratly Islands west of the Philippines.

These reefs lie within Manila’s exclusive economic zone, department assistant secretary Charles C. Jose told a group of visiting Indian journalists.

Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), a nation enjoys an exclusive economic zone — where it has special rights over exploration and use of marine resources — extending 200 nautical miles from its coast.

The Philippines has moved the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS), created under UNCLOS to adjudicate on maritime disputes between countries, to settle its claims on the Spratly Islands in the face of China’s “expansive behaviour”.

China, however, has rejected the idea of settling the matter through arbitration, saying Asian countries believe in resolving disputes bilaterally.

Jose cited how India and Bangladesh had settled their territorial claims in the Bay of Bengal though ITLOS last month. “China should follow the example of India and Bangladesh and agree to arbitration,” Jose said.

He said aerial photos suggested that China was carrying out construction on the four reefs, apparently to establish military bases.

Beijing set up a military base on the Mischief reef in the Spratly Islands over a decade ago, Jose said. China began the reclamation exercise in 1994 over Manila’s objections.

“China said it was developing the reef for use of its fishermen. But it set up a military base,” Jose said. He added that Beijing’s latest reclamation efforts began two years ago.

China is also a signatory to the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, a 2002 agreement between China and the ten Asean countries. Under this agreement, countries should exercise self-restraint and not occupy the reefs of others.

“China is demonstrating an increasingly assertive and sometimes aggressive behaviour,” Jose said.

The Philippines has raised the matter at various forums but China has always maintained that it respects all the international norms and that its activities are backed by its “historical rights” over the area.

“UNCLOS does not recognise historical rights. China is a signatory to it. China is saying one thing and doing another,” Jose said.

The US Senate has backed Manila’s decision to move ITLOS and has disapproved of the Chinese claims over the islands. The US used to maintain military bases in the Philippines, a former colony, till 1992.

The Philippines signed an Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement with the US in April this year under which the US would again start helping Manila enhance its defence preparedness.

“We are trying to establish defence cooperation with the US, Australia, Japan, South Korea and India,” Jose said. Manila is likely to procure two naval frigates from India too.

Several other countries in the neighbourhood — such as Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia — too have maritime territory disputes with China.

Vietnam has sought India’s intervention for its territorial security. At a recent conference of Indian and Asean think tanks in Hanoi, Vietnam foreign minister Pham Binh Minh had raised the issue of territorial disputes with China.

India maintains that maritime and territorial disputes should be settled in international courts and, till then, there should not be any hindrances to navigation or activities such as oil exploration.

Jose supported India’s involvement in oil exploration in the South China Sea in collaboration with Petro Vietnam. “It is within the sovereign rights of Vietnam to explore oil and give the contract to any country,” he said.

Jose said Manila had invited President Pranab Mukherjee and was keen to enhance trade with India, which remains low at $2 billion a year. The two-way trade between India and the 10 Asean countries was worth around $74 billion last year.