MANILA (Mabuhay) — The Philippines backed a new plan by the United States to send more warships to sail close to China’s artificial islands in the disputed South China Sea, saying its ally’s move is consistent with international law.
Washington’s freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, Manila said, “are fully consistent” with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and the rule of law, of which the Philippines has been a staunch advocate.
“There is a collective need to protect and uphold international law in the South China Sea in response to illegal, unilateral and expansive behavior that undermine security, not only in our region, but potentially for the whole world as well,” Foreign Affairs spokesman Charles Jose said.
“This is of paramount concern to all countries,” he added.
Earlier, a US official told Agence France Presse that it will send more military vessels to conduct freedom of navigation sail near the man-made islands built by Beijing in the waters disputed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.
The Chinese Embassy in Manila has yet to respond to a request for comment.
On Tuesday, the USS Lassen, a guided missile destroyer sailed within 12 nautical miles of at least one of the features claimed by China, infuriating Beijing, which called Washington’s move a threat to its sovereignty.
Although it is not a party to the conflict, the US has declared several times that peace and freedom of navigation in the waters, where a bulk of the world’s trade pass, is in its national interest.
“Failure to challenge false claims of sovereignty would undermine this order and lead China to the false conclusion that its claims are accepted as a fait accompli,” Jose said.
In response, China’s deputy foreign minister Zhang Yesui summoned US Ambassador Max Baucus to announce that the warship had engaged in a “serious provocation,” the official news agency Xinhua said.
“The Chinese government will resolutely safeguard territorial sovereignty and legal sea interests, and China will do whatever necessary to oppose deliberate provocation from any country,” Zhang added.
A foreign ministry spokesman said that the ship had “illegally entered” waters near the islands.
Tensions flared anew after China beefed up its reclamation activities in disputed areas and transformed seven previously submerged features into artificial islands with buildings several stories high with at least two runways despite concerns raised by several countries, including the US.
China claims “indisputable sovereignty” over 90 percent of the waters, where undersea gas deposits have been discovered in several areas.
The Philippines challenged China’s claim before a Netherlands-based arbitration court to try to declare the Asian giant’s assertion illegal.
MOU between US, China
The controversy regarding USS Lassen’s patrol came even as the US Defense Department and the Ministry of National Defense of the People’s Republic of China have an existing “Memorandum of Understanding Regarding the Rules of Behavior for Safety of Air and Maritime Encounters” signed in November 2014.
The Memorandum states that it is meant to describe the purpose, principles, and processes to adhere to existing international law and norms, to improve operational safety at sea and in the air, to enhance mutual trust, and to develop a new model of military-to-military relations between the two countries.
The Memorandum added that military vessels and aircraft as well as naval auxiliaries enjoy sovereign immunity, making them immune from jurisdiction of any state other than their flag state. But they can also act to defend themselves.
In case of encounters at sea, military vessels should ensure navigation safety through active communications such as clarification of identity and courtesy greetings and coordinate actions such as vessel maneuvering intentions.
All vessels and aircraft of both US and China are told to refrain from using uncivil language or unfriendly physical gestures.
The Memorandum also included rules for specially designated areas. Military vessels and aircraft should provide appropriate warning when conducting activities such as military exercises and live weapons firing that may affect safety of others navigating the area. (MNS)