The Philippines and China are talking again, and they are trying to work out a temporary solution to their dispute over Scarborough Shoal, Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said on Friday.
In a text message to the Inquirer, Del Rosario said the two sides resumed consultations earlier last week to break the stalemate.
The good news from Del Rosario came as Malacañang reiterated that the government had no hand in the anti-China protests in Manila and other capital cities around the world on Friday.
Hong Lei, spokesperson for the Chinese foreign ministry, accused the Philippines on Friday of escalating tensions between the two countries by encouraging protests against China’s intrusion on Scarborough Shoal, a group of coral and rock formations in the South China Sea well within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.
“It’s a wrong action that complicates and magnifies the issue,” Hong told Asian journalists in Beijing.
Hong said the Philippine side broke diplomatic contact “for a period of time” but Chinese officials kept in touch with their counterparts both in Beijing and in Manila, as China was committed to resolve the dispute through diplomacy.
Late on Friday, the Department of Foreign Affairs said Filipino and Chinese diplomats in Manila had resumed talks to break the deadlock over Scarborough Shoal.
The department did not disclose the negotiation points but going by China’s “requirements,” as Hong mentioned in his talk with journalists in Beijing, the consultations would lead to, at best, temporary agreements that would allow the two sides to disengage without losing face.
China’s demands, Hong said, were that Chinese public service ships at Scarborough Shoal—called Panatag Shoal and Bajo de Masinloc by the Philippines—not be disturbed, that Chinese fishing boats be left alone to go about their normal activities, and that Philippine vessels leave the shoal, which China calls Huangyan Island.
Face-off at the shoal
On Tuesday, the military reported that the number of Chinese vessels at Scarborough Shoal had increased to more than 30, from 14 last week.
China now has three big ships in the area, in addition to seven Chinese fishing vessels and 23 utility boats.
The Philippines has only two vessels in the lagoon, the BRP Edsa, a Coast Guard search-and-rescue ship, and the MCS 3001, a vessel belonging to the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources.
Not this early
The Philippines will never agree to those demands, although Del Rosario did not say how Manila was responding. But he indicated that both sides did not expect to reach a lasting solution to the dispute this early.
“A diplomatic result ending the current impasse in Bajo de Masinloc, which we hope can be achieved, will at best be a temporary one,” Del Rosario said. “Ultimately, we will need an overall solution.”
The Philippines has already decided to go for that by going to international courts and forums to force China to recognize its sovereignty over parts of the South China Sea—called West Philippine Sea by Manila—within its exclusive economic zone.
According to Del Rosario, the Philippine side is “moving forward with the legal track as a durable solution to our disputes in the West Philippine Sea.”
Stressing the need to “pursue a peaceful resolution” of the conflict with China, he said the DFA would follow a three-track approach: political, through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations; legal, through United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) settlement; and diplomatic, through continuing consultations to defuse the current tensions at Scarborough Shoal.
Raul Hernandez, the DFA spokesperson, said the department would press ahead with the legal track. “As Secretary Del Rosario has said, the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea (Itlos) would provide an impartial venue for ascertaining who between the Philippines and China has sovereign rights over the waters around Bajo de Masinloc and also around the Reed Bank area,” Hernandez said.
Del Rosario has repeatedly asserted that abiding by the rules set by the Unclos was the legitimate way of dealing with conflicting and overlapping claims in the West Philippine Sea.
In a statement on the 30th anniversary of the 1982 signing of the Unclos by 159 UN member states in Montego Bay, Jamaica, Del Rosario said the convention “has never been more important to the Philippines than today when overlapping maritime claims threaten as never before the peace and prosperity in our part of the world.”
“The Philippines believes that the rules-based approach in Unclos, together with the norms in the UN Charter and international law, are the way forward in addressing in a just, peaceful and lasting manner the maritime disputes in the West Philippine Sea,” Del Rosario said.
Scarborough Shoal is located 220 kilometers west of Zambales, but China insists it is Chinese territory even though the nearest Chinese landmass is more than 500 kilometers away.
Last week, Del Rosario said the Philippines would unilaterally bring the conflict to Itlos following Beijing’s rejection of Manila’s proposal for international arbitration.
In a text message from Washington, D.C., Del Rosario said the DFA was preparing for the presentation of the dispute to the Itlos.
The tribunal is based in Hamburg, Germany.
He pointed out that Chinese ships were “engaged in illegal activities in Bajo de Masinloc.”
“The whole world knows that China has myriad more ships and aircraft than the Philippines. At day’s end, however, we hope to demonstrate that international law would be the great equalizer,” he emphasized. With a report from Christine O. Avendaño