The Philippine president made a strident statement Tuesday on the South China Sea to the United Nations General Assembly, describing a 2016 arbitral tribunal award that struck down virtually all of China’s claims in the disputed waters as “beyond compromise.” Like other world leaders addressing the pandemic-restricted event, President Rodrigo Duterte delivered the remarks in a pre-recorded video speech. His remarks aired shortly after Chinese President Xi Jinping delivered his address at the opening of the 75thsession of the General Assembly. “The award is now part of international law, beyond compromise and beyond the reach of passing governments to dilute, diminish, or abandon,” Duterte said, in reference to the outcome of the case the previous Philippine administration brought to The Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration. “We firmly reject attempts to undermine it,” he added in his first speech to the U.N. since his election in 2016. The 2016 award refuted the legal basis for nearly all of China’s expansive maritime and territorial claims in the South China Sea. It called Beijing’s insistence on holding “historic rights” to the waters there inconsistent with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS. China has never recognized the 2016 arbitration or its outcome. Other countries – the United States, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, and most recently the United Kingdom, Germany, and France – have brought up the 2016 arbitration award in their own complaints about China’s behavior in the South China Sea, or have called China to come into compliance with the award as it now constitutes a precedent under international law. “We welcome the increasing number of states that have come in support of the award and what it stands for – the triumph of reason over rashness, of law over disorder, of amity over ambition,” Duterte went on to say. “This, as it should, is the majesty of the law.” Duterte’s comments suggested a hardening in tone from the Philippines, which put its territorial disputes with China on the backburner after he took office four years ago. Duterte has sought closer economic ties with China and has toyed with a reduction in ties with its long-standing treaty ally, the United States. On other topics, Duterte spoke about the climate crisis, the effects of the pandemic on migrants and stranded seafarers, and the need for a COVID-19 vaccine to be available as a global public good. Duterte, who has faced international criticism over allegations of widespread extrajudicial killings in a bloody war on drugs, also delivered a lengthy diatribe against human rights advocates. He accused them of having “weaponized” human rights and of “preying on the most vulnerable humans.” The opening day of the General Assembly was dominated by the tensions between the U.S. and China, with President Donald Trump blaming China for the spread of COVID-19. He demanded that China be held accountable. Xi pushed back, saying China had no intention of entering a “Cold War.” ”We will never seek hegemony, expansion, or sphere of influence,” Xi said. “We have no intention to fight either a Cold War or a hot war with any country. We will continue to narrow differences and resolve disputes with others through dialogue and negotiation. We do not seek to develop only ourselves or engage in a zero-sum game.” Xi made no mention of the South China Sea. China currently considers itself to have a maritime dispute with six other Asian governments concerning the South China Sea. They are the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan, and Indonesia. The United States recently updated its official stance on the dispute, calling China’s maritime claims and claims to some submerged features in the South China Sea “unlawful” and “illegal,” slowly aligning the U.S. stance with the 2016 arbitration award. It has also recently changed its policies on Marine Scientific Research to reflect UNCLOS, despite the U.S. Senate never having ratified the Convention.
United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Friday reaffirmed Washington’s commitment to Southeast Asia and accused China of “aggression” in the South China Sea and manipulating the flow of the Mekong River in a time of drought. Touting U.S. investment in the region and support for the COVID-19 response of the Association of the Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Pompeo said Washington will speak out in the face of China’s “threats to sovereign nations’ ability to make free choices.” “We stand with our ASEAN partners as we insist on the rule of law and respect for sovereignty in the South China Sea, where Beijing has pursued aggressive campaigns of coercion and environmental devastation,” Pompeo said in a statement released during a summit of top ASEAN diplomats held online this week and hosted by Vietnam. The top U.S. diplomat accused China of exacerbating the drought in nations downstream on the Mekong River. “We stand for transparency and respect in the Mekong region, where the CCP [Chinese Communist party] has abetted arms and narcotics trafficking and unilaterally manipulated upstream dams, exacerbating an historic drought,” Pompeo said. His statement did not provide evidence to support the allegation of the CCP aiding weapons and drugs smuggling. Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam have been grappling with variable water flow on the Mekong that supports the livelihoods of tens of millions of people. While poor rains have caused the drought, environmentalists say dams that China has constructed on the upper reaches of the river have worsened the situation. Rising tensions Pompeo’s rhetoric underscores the rapid deterioration in U.S.-China relations on a raft of issues in recent months, including trade, the status of Hong Kong, the plight of Uyghur Muslims and China’s assertion of “historic rights” to most of the disputed South China Sea. On Thursday, Pompeo had urged Southeast Asian countries to reconsider business deals with the 24 Chinese companies that Washington sanctioned last month for their roles in constructing Beijing’s artificial islands in the South China Sea. In recent years, Beijing has undertaken major reclamation of disputed land features in the Paracel and Spratly island chains. ASEAN nations Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines also have territorial claims in the South China Sea and seek to use resources in areas that China claims for itself. Beijing further claims parts of that sea overlapping the exclusive economic zone of Indonesia, the largest ASEAN member. For its part, Beijing this week accused the U.S. of interference in the region’s affairs. On Wednesday, Foreign Minister Wang Yi called the U.S. the “biggest driver of militarization of the South China Sea,” Chinese media reported. “The United States is becoming the most dangerous factor damaging peace in the South China Sea,” Wang said at the East Asia Summit Foreign Ministers’ Meeting. Southeast Asian nations are uneasy about being caught in the war of words between the U.S. and China. In the ASEAN joint communique made public on Thursday, the bloc, which operates by consensus, expressed concern over increased tensions in the South China Sea and called for resolution of disputes in accordance with the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS. A day before that, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi told reporters that the group’s countries did not want to “get caught up in the rivalry between major powers.” Vietnam, too, said on Wednesday that the dispute threatens regional stability and that countries should settle the acrimonious row by adhering to international law, including the 1982 UNCLOS. While Friday’s toughly worded statement from the U.S. was issued by Pompeo, the State Department public schedule showed that his deputy, Stephen Biegun, was the leading U.S. delegate at the ASEAN virtual meetings that day. Pompeo was traveling to the Middle East to attend the opening of Afghan peace talks. The ASEAN summit ends Saturday after the ASEAN Regional Forum on peace and security. The 27-member forum includes 10 ASEAN states, India, Japan, China, the U.S., Russia and the European Union. Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.