Eight years ago this month, on July 7, 2015, the great Philippine diplomat, Secretary of Foreign Affairs Albert del Rosario addressed a distinguished panel of jurists in the Philippines-China Law of the Sea Convention arbitration, where he cited “the equalizing power of international law.” International law, he said, “allows the weak to challenge the powerful on an equal footing, confident in the conviction that principles trump power; that law triumphs over force; and that right prevails over might.” Like the Philippines, the United States believes that all countries, large and small, should play by the same rules, and that large countries should not be allowed to bully smaller ones.
The 2016 arbitral ruling which Secretary Del Rosario championed emanates from the rules-based international order that has provided peace, stability and prosperity for our nations for decades. The 1982 Law of the Sea Convention, whose provisions the arbitral tribunal applied and vindicated, is fundamental to the peaceful and predictable use of the world’s oceans.
Peace and stability in the South China Sea are vital to the entire world, including to the global economy. We have a strategic interest in upholding the rights of all countries in the maritime domain, including the rights of South China Sea claimants to exercise their sovereign rights and jurisdiction in their exclusive economic zones and continental shelves, and of all users of the sea to exercise freedom of navigation and overflight and other lawful uses of the seas.
The South China Sea has become one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, with total annual trade flowing through the South China Sea estimated to be more than three trillion U.S. dollars. The South China Sea basin is estimated to hold 11 billion barrels of untapped oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, at least some of which is near Palawan.
More than half of the globe’s oil tankers and other raw materials pass through the South China Sea. The South China Sea also accounts for 12 percent of the global fish catch, which is estimated to generate $100 billion annually or P5.5 trillion, and which supports the livelihoods of 3.7 million people and the dietary requirements of millions more. The South China Sea is a key thoroughfare for undersea cables and is therefore pivotal for the continued secure flow of data. Clearly, the South China Sea matters to all of us.
With the 2016 Arbitral Ruling, the Philippines secured a final and legally binding decision that validates the country’s sovereign rights and jurisdiction over its Exclusive Economic Zone and continental shelf, in a ruling that found the PRC’s maritime claims and actions to enforce those claims in the South China Sea were inconsistent with international law.
In support of the Tribunal’s 2016 decision, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said, “The United States and our Indo-Pacific allies and partners are committed to preserving a system where goods, ideas and people flow freely across land, sky, cyberspace and the open seas.” We applaud the tribunal’s decision that the PRC’s “nine dash line” maritime claims are unlawful, rejecting the PRC’s putative claim to so-called historic rights in the South China Sea as well as its claims to maritime entitlements based on PRC-designated island groups. With the arbitral ruling, international law won out, protecting a nation’s sovereign and economic rights, just as Senator J. William Fulbright said.
In terms of U.S. policy regarding this vitally important region, I want to reiterate that the United States calls for claimants to resolve territorial and maritime claims peacefully and in accordance with international law. With respect to maritime claims, we have consistently maintained that all South China Sea claimants should comport claims with international law as reflected in the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention.
I would like to highlight three key lines of effort that describe well U.S. policy in the South China Sea. First, our diplomacy. Together with likeminded partners like the Philippines, we are promoting respect for international law and the rules-based order, freedom of navigation and overflight, unimpeded commerce, and the need for peaceful settlement of disputes.
Second, our maritime capacity-building programs. We support maritime capacity-building programs for the region’s militaries and maritime law enforcement agencies, including a robust array of activities with the Philippines. These programs enhance countries’ maritime domain awareness and improve their ability to patrol their claims—actions which we believe further promote peace and stability.
And, third and finally, I want to highlight our own operations conducted by the U.S. military, including freedom of navigation operations and routine presence operations, which demonstrate that all countries have the right to fly, sail and operate anywhere that international law allows. And we’ve been doing just that in the South China Sea and around the world on a daily basis for many years.
One of the ways the United States and the Philippines strengthen our alliance is by placing a premium on sustaining an international system based on international law. Our focus on international law is reflected in our foreign policies and can be seen in our enduring commitment to the U.S.-Philippine Alliance, based on the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty.
We share a common vision for a region governed by the rule of law, freedom of navigation, and respect for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of all nations. These shared values, with their echoes in the United Nations Charter, keep our alliance vibrant and meaningful even after seven decades.
The Philippines is our oldest treaty ally in East Asia. But age has not dimmed the vitality of our relationship. To this day, the ironclad U.S.-Philippine alliance provides a strong framework for how we work together to address common threats. It remains a bulwark in our regional security network—in a world beset by many uncertainties, our commitment to the U.S.-Philippine alliance is not one of them.