Philippine FM Urges Regional Unity on South China Sea Disputes

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Philippine FM Urges Regional Unity on South China Sea Disputes

Enrique Manalo’s comments were delivered on the first day of the ASEAN-Australia Special Summit in Melbourne.

Philippine FM Urges Regional Unity on South China Sea Disputes

In this photo released by ASEAN via the Australian Government, Secretary of Foreign Affairs of the Philippines Enrique A Manalo addresses a forum on maritime cooperation at the ASEAN Special Summit, in Melbourne, Monday, March 04, 2024.

Credit: Wayne Taylor, ASEAN/Australian Government via AP

Philippine Foreign Minister Enrique Manalo urged regional neighbors Monday to stand together more strongly in upholding the rule of law in the South China Sea, where China is forcefully pursuing territorial claims in conflict with other nations.

Manalo spoke at a forum on maritime cooperation on the sidelines of a Southeast Asian leaders’ summit in the Australian city of Melbourne at which China’s increasingly assertive moves are high on the agenda.

Manalo referred to the Philippines’ victory over China in a 2016 arbitration ruling in The Hague, Netherlands, that invalidated Beijing’s vast territorial claims in the South China Sea. China did not accept the ruling.

Manalo said the Philippines pursued the case to uphold the rule of law and to promote the peaceful settlement of such disputes.

“The shared stewardship of the seas and oceans in the region behooves us to unite in preserving the primacy of international law so we can ensure equitable and sustainable outcomes for all,” he said.

“It also calls for us to stand firmly together in opposing actions that contradict or are inconsistent with international law,” he added.

China claims sovereignty over virtually the entire South China Sea, which is one of the world’s most crucial waterways for shipping. That has put it at odds with the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei, which all maintain claims to islands, reefs and undersea resources in the region.

Manalo called for regional neighbors to uphold cooperation over confrontation and diplomacy over the threatened use of force.

“For the South China Sea and the seas and oceans of the Indo-Pacific to be unifying domains of peace, stability, and prosperity, we need to gather more strongly around the collective responsibility as well as a shared sense of stewardship,” he said.

The Chinese Embassy in the Philippines said in a statement Sunday that China “has always been committed to properly handling the South China Sea disputes with relevant parties through dialogue and consultation, while firmly safeguarding its territorial sovereignty and its maritime rights and interests.”

The statement accused the Philippines of using the South China Sea to launch a “malicious smear campaign against China.”

Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong echoed Manalo’s comments, saying the nine member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) represented at the Melbourne summit need to “nurture and protect agreed rules, uphold international law, prevent conflict, and build strategic trust.”

“Shared prosperity is an incentive to maintain peace, yet it is not enough to guarantee peace. The stakes are clear,” Wong said.

“We know that a major conflict in our region would be devastating to our communities and economies, as the terrible conflicts in Gaza and Ukraine have shown,” she added.

She announced that Australia would spend 40 million Australian dollars ($26 million) on enhancing its maritime partnerships in the region aimed at both security and prosperity.

Australia and the Philippines conducted joint sea and air patrols in the South China Sea for the first time in November.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told Manalo in December that China will maintain military pressure on the Philippines in the South China Sea.

Wang “warned that if the Philippine side misjudges the situation, goes its own way, or even colludes with ill-intentioned external forces to continue to stir up troubles, China will defend its rights in accordance with law and respond resolutely,” the official Xinhua News Agency reported.

Wang’s comments followed China’s mobilization of its coast guard and maritime militia to block Philippine supply missions to support its soldiers and fishermen.