The Philippines is pushing for the setup of a “Joint Marine Peace Park” in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), part of its fresh proposals that seek to ease tensions in the region by delineating disputed areas and replacing military forces with civilians representing the various claimant countries.
Manila’s proposals came under scrutiny as it began hosting Thursday a two-day meeting of Southeast Asian maritime experts.
The gathering, the first of its kind, was an attempt by the Philippines to present a unified regional policy in confronting China’s exclusive claim over all the islands in the region.
The meeting was limited to maritime and legal experts from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations(Asean), four members of which lay claims to the sea believed to be rich in oil.
The four claimants from Asean are the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei. The other rival claimants are longtime rivals China and Taiwan.
The Philippine proposal maintained that not the entire West Philippine Sea is subject to a dispute, but only the Spratly group of islands which are sought by all six claimants, and the Paracel Islands which are being contested by China, Vietnam and Taiwan.
China refers to the strategic body of water as the South China Sea.
The proposed peace park “could be established in the joint cooperation area, or JCA, for the six Spratlys claimant-countries,” according to a paper from the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), a copy of which was obtained by the Daily News Philippines.
“It would be a concrete implementation of the code of conduct (for Spratlys claimants) and a beginning of a more vigorous cooperation in the West Philippine Sea,” the paper said.
It noted that the code “would be specifically applied in the JCA” and “could be designed to prevent accidental military encounters through specific rules of engagement between and among the parties.”
The DFA paper said the JCA could be “demilitarized,” with police or Coast Guard staff replacing military personnel.
On maritime areas outside the JCA, the report said “joint activities that could be undertaken include search and rescue, oil spill preparedness, marine scientific research, and other conservation projects.”
And to transform the West Philippine Sea from a region of conflict into a so-called zone of peace, freedom, friendship and cooperation, “the disputed areas must be clarified from the nondisputed waters,” the DFA said.
Once the disputed areas are delineated, claimants can decide to withdraw their troops, replace them with civilian forces and undertake joint research projects and disaster drills to boost trust, the proposal added.
For Manila, the disputed areas in the West Philippine Sea are “specific, determinable and measurable.”
These areas can be determined and measured, it said, by making distinctions between “territorial disputes” and “maritime claims,” specifying the geological features being claimed, and applying the rules governing them under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos).
In the Asean bloc, the Philippines together with Vietnam has been the most vocal party in the dispute. China, however, prefers bilateral negotiations with each claimant country.
Two senior Philippine diplomats told The Associated Press (AP) that Beijing had protested the two-day meeting.
Beijing has also questioned why Asean should deal with the disputes as a group when the majority of its members are not claimants, the two diplomats said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters.
One of the diplomats said that if Asean can forge a common stand, the bloc would later try to get China’s concurrence.
A draft statement to be issued after the meeting indicated all the participants were inclined to support the Manila proposal, describing it as “consistent with international law.”
They would urge the claimant countries “to meet among themselves and explore the possibility of defining” the disputed areas for joint projects.
They would endorse the proposal to senior Asean diplomats for political deliberation, according to the draft statement, a copy of which was seen by AP.
Resolving the dispute “may take centuries,” said Vice President Jejomar Binay while talking to reporters after delivering an opening speech to the delegates at the conference.
Binay noted in the speech that the sea—through which more than half of the world’s supertankers pass—has “become a source of tension, which threatens the security” of not only the but also the region and the world.
But segregating the disputed areas would be tough. The Philippines, for example, claims as its own a potentially gas-rich area called the Reed Bank, which lies off the province of Palawan.
China, however, contests that claim, and two Chinese patrol boats tried to drive away a Philippine oil exploration ship from the area in March.
The Philippines protested the incident as one of several intrusions by China into its territorial waters that reignited tensions in the first half of the year. With a report from AP