U.S., Japan, Australia tell China, Philippines to abide by arbitral tribunal ruling on disputed marine territory

(L-R) Australian Foreign Affairs Ministers Julie Bishop, Taro Kono of Japan, and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (Photo: www.asiamaritime.net)

By Macon Araneta | FilAm Star Correspondent

The United States, Japan, and Australia on August 7, called on the Philippines to abide by its own legal victory against China over the disputed South China Sea and protest Beijing’s island-building and militarization on the disputed property.

China claims nearly all of the sea, through which $5 trillion in annual shipping trade passes and which is believed to sit atop vast oil and gas deposits.

Its sweeping claims overlap with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei (all members of the 10-nation ASEAN), as well as Taiwan.

China has also dramatically expanded its presence in the contested areas in recent years by building giant artificial islands that could be used as military bases, raising concerns it will eventually establish de facto control over the waters.

However, in recent years Beijing has managed to weaken regional resistance by courting some ASEAN members.

The three countries’ foreign ministers – Rex Tillerson of the US, Taro Kono of Japan, and Julie Bishop of Australia, issued the same reminder to China at the end of the 50th ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting and Related Meetings in Manila.

“The ministers called on China and the Philippines to abide by the Arbitral Tribunal’s 2016 Award in the Philippines-China arbitration, as it is final and legally binding on both parties,” they said in a joint statement.

They referred to the Philippines’ legal victory against China before a Hague tribunal in July 2016. But China refused to recognize the tribunal’s authority and did not participate in its proceedings.

The Philippines was one of the most vocal critics against China and filed a case before a UN-backed tribunal.

But following the lead of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, Philippine Foreign Sec. Alan Peter Cayetano downplayed the ruling to boost economic ties with Beijing. This move led to offers of billions of dollars in investments or aid from China.

Tillerson, Kono, and Bishop also aired in the joint statement serious concerns over maritime disputes in the South China Sea (SCS), parts of which the Philippines claims as the West Philippine Sea.

“The ministers voiced their strong opposition to coercive unilateral actions that could alter the status quo and increase tensions,” the joint statement said.

They then urged claimants in the South China Sea “to refrain from land reclamation, construction of outposts, militarization of disputed features, and undertaking unilateral actions that cause permanent physical change to the marine environment in areas pending delimitation.”

They also asked ASEAN member states and China to quickly finalize a legally binding Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea.

Their joint statement comes after China warned on August 6, against “outside parties” in drafting a COC.

Also on Sunday, ASEAN foreign ministers criticized China’s land reclamation activities in the South China Sea, defying expectations of a weaker statement at the end of their Manila meeting.

China insisted that a much-delayed code of conduct between it and ASEAN members over the disputed sea must not be legally binding, a demand to which Southeast Asian countries have so far acquiesced.

Reacting to the joint statement, Foreign Affairs spokesman Robespierre Bolivar reiterated President Duterte’s position.

“Let me put this way, the President has stated on many occasions that the Philippines will respect the arbitral ruling and will raise it with relevant parties in proper time,” Bolivar said.

Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio has strongly criticized the Duterte administration for not asking the world to support the Philippines after the ruling came out in July 2016.