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US raps Chinese garrison plan on disputed island
Publication Date : 28-07-2012
The United States urges China and other South China Sea claimants to resolve territorial disputes through diplomacy
The United States has criticised Chinese plans for a military garrison on an island in the contested West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) and said all claimants should resolve their disputes through diplomacy.
China on Tuesday declared a new municipality on tiny Woody Island in the Paracel Islands claimed by Vietnam, a move protested by Hanoi and Manila.
China has also sent a large fleet of fishing vessels to the Paracels and the Spratly archipelago in the middle of West Philippine Sea to show its economic dominance in the contested waters.
Twenty boats from the fleet of 30 fishing vessels had moved close to the Philippine border at Pag-asa Island, causing enough alarm that Muntinlupa Rep. Rodolfo Biazon, formerly chief of staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, suggested the Philippines ask the United Nations for a peacekeeping force to prevent armed confrontations between Manila and Beijing over their conflicting claims in the West Philippine Sea.
But the Philippine Palace and the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) on Friday rejected the suggestion of Biazon, chair of the House defence committee, preferring to stick to the Aquino administration’s diplomatic, political and legal tack in finding a solution to the territorial dispute with China.
The Associated Press reported on Friday that prominent US senators have declared the Chinese move as provocative and a possible violation of international law.
Code of conduct
US State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland told reporters on Thursday the United States was pressing all parties to work on a code of conduct for the West Philippine Sea, according to the AP report from Washington.
Asked about China’s plans, Nuland said the United States was concerned by “unilateral moves.”
She said: “There’s a concern here that they are beginning to take actions when we want to see all of these issues resolved at the table.”
China has no problem with that as long as the talks are bilateral. It has refused to discuss its territorial disputes in the West Philippine Sea with five other Asian countries on international forums, and its lobbying against such a tack by its rivals has already caused differences among members of the regional grouping Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).
Differences in Asean
The Asean foreign ministers’ meeting in Phnom Penh earlier this month failed to issue a customary joint communiqué because host Cambodia, an ally of China, blocked efforts by the Philippines and Vietnam to mention the West Philippine Sea disputes in the postconference statement. It was the first time Asean failed to issue a joint statement in its 45-year history.
Shuttle diplomacy by Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, however, produced a belated statement, issued by the bloc last week, that called in general terms for implementation of Asean-promoted principles for peaceful resolution of maritime disputes, including use of force, resolving the conflicts in accordance with international laws, and an early signing of a legally binding code of conduct aimed at thwarting any major armed conflict.
The Philippines went along with Natalegawa to help heal rifts within the bloc, but said it would insist that the territorial disputes be mentioned in future Asean joint statements.
On Tuesday, the DFA summoned Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Ma Keqing and handed her a diplomatic note protesting China’s plans to establish a military garrison on Woody Island and the arrival of the Chinese fishing fleet in the Spratlys.
China claims all of the West Philippine Sea and insists that anything it does is legal because it has sovereignty over the entire sea.
Garrison officials named
In another report on Friday, the AP, quoting Chinese state media, said Beijing had reinforced its message of control over the West Philippine Sea by naming two senior military officials to head a garrison in a new city established on Woody Island just days ago.
The China Daily newspaper on Friday quoted Defence Ministry spokesperson Yang Yujun as saying the garrison will be responsible for defence for Sansha City, the AP said.
The naming of Senior Col. Cai Xihong as commander and Senior Col. Liao Chaoyi as its political commissar came after Sansha was declared a city Monday with a flag-raising ceremony shown live on state television. The AP said it was unclear if combat forces would be stationed there.
The Philippines has no territorial claims in the Paracels, but the DFA says China’s plan to administer the island group and the Spratlys from Sansha is unacceptable.
Vietnam said China’s actions in the Paracels violated international law.
Tuesday’s protest included strong objection to the arrival of 30 Chinese fishing vessels in the Spratlys. The fleet is reportedly escorted by two People’s Liberation Army missile frigate.
Twenty of the fishing vessels had moved to within 9 kilometres of Philippine-occupied Pag-asa Island, seat of government of the Kalayaan municipality in Palawan province, by Tuesday, but despite confirmation by the military’s West Command (Wescom) and by the Philippine Navy, the DFA remained unprepared to make a statement on Friday.
No UN intervention yet
DFA spokesperson Raul Hernandez said the department still had yet to receive an official report on the presence of Chinese fishing vessels near Pag-asa Island.
Hernandez said, however, that the DFA had received a report from the Navy that three Chinese vessels were spotted on Wednesday at Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal), a rock and coral formation within the Philippine exclusive economic zone that China claims is part of its territory.
Hernandez said asking the United Nations for a peacekeeping force, as suggested by Biazon, was not an option for the Philippines at this time.
“Maybe at this point in time, what we should be doing is concentrate on the three tracks that we have been undertaking,” Hernandez told reporters, referring to the diplomatic, political and legal strategy that the DFA had chosen to find a solution to the country’s territorial dispute with China.
Hernandez said the situation had not reached the extent that required asking for UN intervention.
Palace says no
Deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said Biazon’s suggestion was premised on the deterioration of tensions between the Philippines and China into conflict, exactly what the government was trying to prevent. She said the government was focused on a diplomatic, political and legal search for a resolution of the territorial dispute with China.
Valte said the Navy was still confirming the presence of Chinese fishing vessels near Pag-asa. She said it was up to the DFA and the Navy what action to take.
The Navy confirmed the approach of the Chinese fishing vessels on Thursday. Commodore Rustom Peña, commander of the military’s Naval Forces West, said the Navy had vessels ready to deploy should the Chinese cross into Philippine territory.
“We will assert our sovereignty in that area because that’s our territory,” Peña said.
Sen. Gregorio Honasan said on Friday that he agreed with Biazon that the Philippines should ask the United Nations to help find a solution to disputes in the West Philippine Sea.
Honasan said the Philippines should also ask the United States to play “policeman of the world” to maintain freedom of navigation in the West Philippine Sea.
“Only the US can watch China for global peace and security,” Honasan said.
Freedom of navigation in the West Philippine Sea is in the interest of many countries and not only the Philippines, Honasan said.
“There should be a deterrent that provides a buffer zone, including an aerial component to prevent a direct conflict among the claimants,” Honasan said. “It’s only the US with that military power.”
Reports from TJ Burgonio, Tarra Quismundo and Norman Bordadora; and AP