President Rodrigo Duterte has renewed his call to South China Sea (SCS) claimants to adhere to the rule of law and keep stability in the waterway, saying there can be “no real peace if the strong tramples on the weak.”
Duterte made the appeal during his intervention at the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) Summit on Friday, where he stressed the importance of settling maritime disputes in accordance with international laws.
“Excellencies, we all want progress and prosperity for our peoples. And we know that peace and stability are the preconditions for these to happen,” he said.
“There can be no real peace if the strong tramples on the weak — just because it can,” the President added.
Duterte emphasized that the law is the only “acceptable basis for a just maritime order,” singling out the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
All countries should acknowledge and adhere to UNCLOS “faithfully and consistently,” or else there will be chaos, he added.
“The South China Sea,” Duterte said, “must remain a sea of peace, stability and prosperity, where the vital interests of stakeholders inside and outside the region are recognized and respected.”
At the same time, the President conveyed his gratitude to Asian and European nations that have expressed support for upholding the rule of law in the SCS.
Duterte did not single out any country in his statements, but it came a week after China’s three Coast Guard vessels fired water cannons to two Filipino resupply boats en route to Ayungin Shoal.
The local boats were supposed to deliver food and other supplies to the Philippine marine contingent aboard BRP Sierra Madre, a dilapidated ship strategically grounded on Ayungin, which is part of the country’s territory as stated in UNCLOS and affirmed by The Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration in its 2016 decision.
The President has since denounced the Ayungin incident, saying in another forum that the incident does not speak well of the relations between Manila and Beijing.
While the incident did not result in any injuries, it forced the boats to abort their mission.
China, a signatory to UNCLOS, has refused to acknowledge The Hague’s 2016 arbitral award, which also junked its nine-dash line doctrine and sweeping claims in the SCS. The Chinese government has been insisting that the Ayungin Shoal is part of its territory.
Duterte, meanwhile, thanked Beijing during his ASEM intervention for reaffirming its commitment to discussions on a code of conduct on the South China Sea.
The binding code outlines a peaceful resolution of disputes, as state leaders hope that no violent conflicts would arise among China, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan — which have overlapping claims in the resource-rich area.
China is facing international criticism over its repeated intrusions in the Philippine territory, as shown last March when over 220 Chinese ships were spotted in line formation near the Julian Felipe Reef, which is also within the country’s exclusive economic zone.
Over the years, China also expanded its presence in the Philippine waters, turning several reefs into artificial islands with military facilities, runways, and surface to air missiles.
Beijing has been employing a “cabbage strategy” or gradually inserting “layers” of Chinese vessels in Philippine outposts to expand its base and to display its military might, said Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea.
“At the very least, China wants to acquire Ayungin Shoal and build a military facility there. If that happens, it will add another layer of security to their three big military bases in the area,” Batongbacal said in a radio interview on Saturday. “It’s as if they are moving an inch closer to Philippine territory.”
Duterte’s critics have said that Beijing became more aggressive in the South China Sea under the administration’s independent foreign policy.
The President sought closer ties with the Asian superpower in exchange for loans for his big-ticket infrastructure projects, though he repeatedly asserted before the international community the country’s sovereignty and maritime rights.