Aquino takes jab at China: 'Follow the law'

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – President Benigno Aquino III on Wednesday, October 9, echoed a common position among countries on the South China Sea disputes: “Follow the rule of law.”

His message sounded conventional, except that, for Aquino, following the rule of law involves a move that China strongly rejects. He referred to the unprecedented case that the Philippines filed against China before a United Nations tribunal.

In a statement for the 23rd Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in Brunei, the President said the Philippines' case against China is “anchored on international law.”

“Clearly: Our development as a region cannot be realized in an international environment where the rule of law does not exist. Thus, the recognition of the rule of law ensures that every member state’s interest is upheld and respected,” Aquino said, without explicitly hitting Beijing.

He added: “In the context of intertwining interests in the sea known by many names – which is west of the Philippines, east of Vietnam, north of Malaysia, south of China – the challenge that confronts one is a challenge that confronts all.

“This sea known by many names, a problem now, presents an opportunity for ASEAN and all other parties to collectively exercise the observance of the rule of law,” he said.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, on the other hand, on Wednesday called for a "South China Sea a sea of peace, friendship, and cooperation."

"A peaceful South China Sea is a blessing for all," Li told leaders during the ASEAN Summit.

Aquino's statement is likely to agitate Beijing, which in 2012 called Aquino “rude” for bringing up the Philippines' maritime dispute with China in an ASEAN meeting.

China detests the “internationalization” of South China Sea disputes, and prefers bilateral talks with each of the countries involved. It finds the UN case unacceptable because it involves a third party.

The Philippines, on the other hand, pursues its case against China after it said it “had exhausted almost all political and diplomatic avenues for a peaceful settlement of the dispute.”

SUMMIT AGENDA. The ASEAN tackles South China Sea disputes in its 23rd summit in Brunei. Photo by Malacau00f1ang Photo Bureau

SUMMIT AGENDA. The ASEAN tackles South China Sea disputes in its 23rd summit in Brunei.

Photo by Malacau00f1ang Photo Bureau

'What better gift?'

In veiled criticism of China, Aquino also urged ASEAN and China to keep the “status quo” since having crafted the Declaration on the Conduct (DOC) of Parties in the South China Sea in 2002.

He brought this up after the Philippines accused China of building concrete facilities in the disputed Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal – a claim China has denied.

The President cited paragraph 5 of the DOC, which states: “The parties undertake to exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability including, among others, refraining from action of inhabiting on the presently uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals, cays, and other features and to handle their differences in a constructive manner.”

Aquino pushed for the “expeditious conclusion” of the ASEAN-China Code of Conduct (COC) on the South China Sea.

The COC “would guide all parties in creating conditions for the peaceful and durable settlement of disputes,” according to a primer by the University of the Philippines' Asian Center and its Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea.

Without a COC, a DOC on the South China Sea is in place. “While the Declaration is not legally binding, it commits the parties to consultative and peaceful processes of dispute settlement,” the UP primer said.

Aquino on Wednesday said he is “pleased” that the first official ASEAN-China consultations on the COC took place in Suzhou, China, in September.

He said: “All parties – both ASEAN and non-ASEAN, claimant or non-claimant – have stated: Follow the rule of law. In 2002, we tried to come up with a Code of Conduct. We failed. We came up with guidelines that became the DOC. What better gift to all our peoples than to follow all these sincere words by meaningful actions?”

CODE OF CONDUCT. To achieve peace, Southeast Asian leaders and China discuss a Code of Conduct on the South China Sea. Photo by Malacau00f1ang Photo Bureau

CODE OF CONDUCT. To achieve peace, Southeast Asian leaders and China discuss a Code of Conduct on the South China Sea.

Photo by Malacau00f1ang Photo Bureau

'Stick to dialogue'

China, for its part, upheld its long-standing position on South China Sea disputes – to avoid “internationalization” and to promote dialogue.

In a written interview with ASEAN media on Tuesday, October 8, Li said: “The Chinese government is firmly committed to the path of peaceful development, and is unshakable in its resolve to uphold national sovereignty and territorial integrity.

“China and ASEAN countries should stick to dialogue and cooperation and effectively safeguard peace and stability in the South China Sea,” he said.

Li also pushed for adherence to the DOC. He said China, after all, rises in stature peacefully.

“We have no reason to change our path of peaceful development. China's cultural values uphold the principle of 'not doing to others what you don't want others to do to you,'” he explained.

“China will in no way follow the old pattern of 'seeking hegemony after becoming strong.'” – with reports from Agence France-Presse/Rappler.com

Paterno R. Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II is a senior reporter leading Rappler’s coverage of religion and foreign affairs. He finished MA Journalism in Ateneo and MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email him at pat.esmaquel@rappler.com.

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