China rejects Philippines claims over Scarborough

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Thursday, April 19, 2012

MANILA -- China said Wednesday that the Philippines is violating maritime law by claiming a shoal in the South China Sea and dismissed Manila's request to take the dispute to an international court.

"We believe it runs counter to historical facts and violates the law," said Liu Weimin, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry.

Philippine Navy and Chinese maritime patrol vessels engaged in a standoff last week over a fishing incident near the Scarborough shoal in the South China Sea, an area both sides claim as sovereign territory.


Liu said China had "lodged solemn representations" with the Philippines and that Fu Ying, a vice foreign minister, had called in the Philippine envoy on Wednesday over the issue.

The Philippines plans to seek resolution in an international court, arguing that the shoal is well within the country's 370-kilometer (230-mile) exclusive economic zone that is recognized under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

But Liu said the Philippines is violating international law by using the UN convention to call into question sovereignty over the territory, known as Huangyan island in Chinese.

"China has sufficient legal evidence for its jurisdiction over the Huangyan island. China was the earliest to discover and name the island, and has included it on maps and exercised its sovereignty over it ever since," Liu said.

He added that the Philippines never objected to China's territorial control of the shoal before 1997 and that its claim now is "completely baseless."

A Philippine government statement on Wednesday, however, contradicted Liu's remarks, saying it has effectively occupied and exercised jurisdiction over the shoal -- which it calls Bajo de Masinloc, or Panatag shoal -- for decades.

A map published in 1734 showed the shoal was part of the northwestern Philippine province of Zambales, the government said, adding that a Philippine flag and lighthouse were erected on Scarborough islets in 1965.

US and Philippine warships engaged in defense exercises at the shoal when American forces maintained a naval base in Zambales, the government added.

The shoal "is an integral part of the Philippine territory" and Chinese vessels in the area are committing "serious violation of the Philippines' sovereignty and maritime jurisdiction," it said.

The shoal is among numerous islands, reefs and coral outcrops in the South China Sea claimed by China, the Philippines and other nations for their potential oil and gas deposits, rich fishing grounds and proximity to busy commercial sea lanes.

The controversy flared on April 10 when two Chinese ships prevented a Philippine warship from arresting several Chinese fishermen who were accused of illegal entry and poaching. The fishermen slipped away from the shoal over the weekend, angering Philippine officials.

The Philippines lodged a protest with China on Monday, accusing one of the Chinese ships and an aircraft of harassing a Philippine-registered yacht that was conducting archaeological research in the shoal.

Liu said tensions started to ease after bilateral talks.

"We hope that the Philippines can stay with their commitment and pull back their ships as soon as possible, and resume peace and stability in waters near the Huangyan island," Liu said.

Presidential Communications Development and Strategic Planning Office Secretary Ricky Carandang, however, reiterated in a news briefing Wednesday the government’s stand to seek the help of the International Tribunal on Law of the Sea (Itlos) regarding the standoff.

This came even as Senator Ralph Recto, an administration ally, asked President Benigno Aquino III to seriously consider engaging China in a possible joint exploration agreement in the Spratlys, instead of trading diplomatic protests.

“I’m not saying that we back track from our claim. In fact, we should do it relentlessly. But while the natural finds of Spratlys lay underneath, idle and untapped, a joint exploration appears to be the more logical engagement with China,” Recto said, referring to the islands’ gas and other marine resources.

Such possible action, he said, would not need the approval of the Philippines’ fellow members in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) since China is a major trading partner of these countries.

Recto said as an emerging power, China would naturally gravitate toward the country that is nearest to the disputed islands in case it would want to conduct exploration projects unmolested.

He said the country could put on the table its proximity to the Spratlys for the build-up of infrastructures and other logistics needed for the joint exploration.

But Malacanang said the joint exploration proposal of Rector should be set aside until the Philippines has resolved it territorial dispute with China in the West Philippine Sea.

Carandang said that if a joint exploration would be done as proposed by Recto, more questions could be raised.

He said the government would then be asked which governing law should be followed.

"Right away, you're gonna have a difference of opinion," he said.

He said if China says it owns the Spratly Islands in the West Philippines, it would insist to use the Chinese law.

On the other hand, if the Philippine says it has jurisdiction over the islands, it would insist that any explorations should be done under the auspices of the Philippine law, he said.

"So that's not gonna be settled. That's not something you can go into now, unless you settle the earlier issue first—the most primary issue," Carandang said.

He said aside from bringing the issue to the Itlos, there are mechanisms being studied to bring the matter to other fora. He refused to give other details.

He said any exploration activities, which have the approval of the Philippine government in the West Philippine Sea, will continue. (AP/SDR/Sunnex)

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