PHILIPPINE foreign affairs officials attending the 28th Asean-New Zealand Dialogue reiterated the Philippines’ objection to the continued presence of Chinese maritime militia vessels in Philippine waters.
Foreign Affairs Acting Undersecretary for Bilateral Relations and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) Affairs Elizabeth Buensuceso, who led the Philippine delegation to the dialogue held through video conferencing, said the presence of the Chinese vessels at the Julian Felipe Reef not only infringes on Philippine sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction but also threatens security and stability in the region.
On March 7, a flotilla of 220 ships were spotted anchored near the Julian Felipe Reef, also called Whitsun Reef, which is inside the Philippine exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
The Chinese embassy in Manila denied the presence of Chinese maritime militia at Julian Felipe Reef and insisted that the area it calls Niu’e Jiao belongs to China.
Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said the country filed on Sunday night a diplomatic protest against China over the incident.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana has described the presence of 220 militia boats within the country’s EEZ and continental shelf as a “clear provocative action of militarizing the area,” and said he viewed their presence in the area with grave concern.
At the dialogue, New Zealand echoed calls for adherence to the rule of law, including the 1982 United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea or Unclos, the exercise of self-restraint, resolution of disputes by peaceful means, and undertaking cooperative activities to build trust and confidence.
The dialogue reaffirmed Asean centrality in shaping the political, socioeconomic, and security agenda for the region in light of the Covid-19 pandemic.
New Zealand vowed its support for key Asean Covid-19 initiatives such as inoculation of registered Asean citizens within its territories and restoring unhampered international travel among Asean member states and New Zealand after the vaccine rollout.
On Thursday, the European Union joined other nations in voicing concern over the incident at the Julian Felipe Reef.
EU Ambassador to the Philippines Luc Véron on Thursday tweeted, “At the EU-Asean ministerial, [EU High Representative] Josep Borrell said, ‘We cannot allow countries to unilaterally undermine international law and maritime security in the #SouthChina#Sea, thereby representing a serious threat to the peaceful development of the region. EU stands by rules-based order”.
In a joint statement with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on March 24, Borell said the US and EU opened a new chapter in their relations, “marked by stronger cooperation on key foreign policy and security issues.”
“We agreed to launch the European Union-United States dialogue on China as a forum to discuss the full range of related challenges and opportunities,” said Borell, the EU Minister for Foreign Affairs.
“We decided to continue meetings at the senior official and expert levels on topics such as reciprocity, economic issues, resilience, human rights, security, multilateralism and areas for constructive engagement with China, such as climate change,” he said.
The US State Department and the Japanese embassy in the Philippines had engaged the Chinese embassy in a “Twitter war” over the incident.
The US State Department tweeted that the US “stands with our ally, the Philippines, regarding concerns about the gathering of PRC maritime militia vessels near Whitsun Reef (Julian Felipe Reef). We call on Beijing to stop using its maritime militia to intimidate and provoke others, which undermines peace and security.”
The Japanese embassy said the issues concerning overlapping claims in the South China Sea “are directly related to peace and stability and a concern for all. Japan strongly opposes any action that heightens tensions. We support the enforcement of #RuleOfLaw in the sea and work with the international community to protect the free, open and peaceful seas.”
In its reply, the Chinese embassy said: “China is committed to managing differences through bilateral consultations and safeguarding peace and stability in the region. It is a pity that some Asian country, which has disputes with China in the East China Sea and is driven by the selfish aim to check China’s revitalization, willingly stoops to acting as a strategic vassal of the US. Such despicable behavior is inviting the wolf into the house, betraying the collective interests of the whole region and doomed to fail.”
WITH BERNADETTE E. TAMAYO