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.
The United Kingdom, France and Germany have signed a joint note denouncing China’s claims in the South China Sea, in a sign of growing European interest in the maritime disputes there and China’s militarization of occupied islets. The three countries together sent a note Wednesday to the United Nations, following in the footsteps of Malaysia, Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines, and the United States. Over the past year, those governments have issued diplomatic rebukes, complaints, and rejections of China’s expansive maritime claims in the South China Sea, all through the U.N. Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. “France, Germany and the United Kingdom underline the importance of unhampered exercise of the freedom of the high seas, in particular the freedom of navigation and overflight, and of the right of innocent passage enshrined in the [United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea], including in the South China Sea,” the note says. The three countries also emphasized that “‘historic rights’ over the South China Sea waters do not comply with international law,” and “recall that the arbitral award in the Philippines v. China case dating to 12 July 2016 clearly confirms this point.” The arbitral award mentioned was a landmark case brought before The Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration by the Philippines. That tribunal ultimately struck down virtually all of China’s claims in the South China Sea as unlawful and without basis under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS. The note rejects other parts of China’s stance over the disputed waters. It states that artificial islands, such as those created by China in the South China Sea through land reclamation and sand dredging, cannot generate maritime entitlements such as exclusive economic zones under UNCLOS. And it also clarifies that France, Germany and the U.K. don’t recognize China’s grouping of rocks and islets in the Paracels into an archipelago that would generate “straight baselines.” Baselines are imaginary lines connecting the outermost points of the features of archipelago that are meant to circumscribe – and effectively maximize – the territory that belongs to it. The Paracels are a cluster of rocks and islets in the northern part of the South China Sea and are disputed between China, Vietnam, and Taiwan. The United Kingdom already did not recognize China’s attempt to draw “straight baselines” around its occupied features in the area and performed a freedom of navigation exercise there in 2018. However, this is the first time France and Germany have explicitly rebuked China’s baselines, as well as China’s “historic rights” position that it insists grants it sovereignty over the waters and rocks spread out over nearly all the South China Sea. Both of those European nations have recently pushed for further involvement in the Pacific. France held a high-level trilateral meeting with Australia and India on Sept. 9, and has signed logistics agreement with both countries that allow its forces to access facilities on their island territories, and vice versa. On Sept. 1, Germany published its first ‘Guideline on the Indo-Pacific,’ updating its policy to reflect growing economic ties to the region and concern over militarized tensions there. “The Malacca Strait may seem a long way away. But our prosperity and our geopolitical influence in the coming decades will depend not least on how we work together with the countries of the Indo-Pacific region. That, more than anywhere else, is where the shape of the international order of tomorrow will be decided,” Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said in a press release earlier this month. “We want to help shape that order – so that it is based on rules and international cooperation, not on the law of the strong.” The Malacca Strait refers to a critical waterway connecting the South China Sea to the Bay of Bengal, in the Indian Ocean. About a quarter of the world’s traded goods and oil passes through the Strait. China has come under growing international criticism, particularly from the U.S. government, over its conduct in the South China Sea, and but it has continued to send military and government-controlled civilian vessels into the territory of its Southeast Asian neighbors. Indonesia, one country astride the Malacca Strait, castigated China for sending a China Coast Guard (CCG) ship into its waters over the weekend. At the same time, ship tracking data shows China has sent survey vessels into areas claimed by the Philippines and even into the Philippine exclusive economic zone. The Hai Yang 4 survey vessel operated around Philippine-claimed Macclesfield Bank from Aug. 24 to Sept. 15, and the Dong Fang Hong 3 has been surveying the same area since Sept. 12. Both are operated directly by the Chinese government. The Jia Geng, another Chinese survey vessel owned by Xiamen University, has been sailing within 150 nautical miles of the Philippine coast since Sept. 13. Benar News, an RFA-affiliated online news service, reached out to the Philippine government on Tuesday for comment and was told the Department of National Defense would “validate this report.” It was not immediately clear if they had done so. The U.S. renewed its criticism of China on Thursday. Assistant Secretary of State David Stilwell – Washington’s top diplomat for East Asia – accused Beijing of “destabilizing territorial revisionism” when he addressed a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Meanwhile, the Chinese Embassy in Manila took aim at recent U.S. criticism in a statement, although it did not explicitly name the United States. “[A] certain country outside the region is bent on interfering in the disputes in the South China Sea and the COC [Code of Conduct] consultations to serve is own geopolitical agenda. How to resist the interference is crucial for pushing forward the future consultations of COC,” the statement said, referring to negotiations between China and the Southeast Asian bloc on a code that would regulate conduct at sea.
China called on Southeast Asian countries Thursday to resist “interference” from the United States in territorial disputes in the South China Sea, over which Washington has been ratcheting up diplomatic pressure lately. Without identifying the U.S. by name, a statement from the Chinese embassy in Manila clearly took aim at recent rhetorical actions by the rival superpower on the issue of the contested waterway. “[A] certain country outside the region is bent on interfering in the disputes in the South China Sea and the COC [Code of Conduct] consultations to serve its own geopolitical agenda. How to resist the interference is crucial for pushing forward the future consultations of COC,” the statement said. For nearly two decades, China and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have been negotiating a Code of Conduct, which would lay out guidelines for how claimants in the sea must behave. In 2002, member-states from the bloc and China signed a Declaration of Conduct in which they expressed their willingness to settle disputes in the maritime region peacefully. During a meeting with his counterparts from the Philippines and other ASEAN countries last week, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that Washington insisted 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.” On Tuesday, David Stilwell, the American assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, criticized China for its “bullying behavior” and “forcing” nations in the region into making a choice over the waterway, where Beijing has been building artificial islands and militarizing atolls that it claims there. In its statement, China reiterated its commitment to maintaining peace in the maritime region where it has disputes with the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan. China also expressed its appreciation for Manila’s commitment to pushing the negotiations on the COC forward, adding it hoped they would be “finalized at the earliest.” China's claims disputed Citing historical rights and the controversial Nine-Dash Line boundary that appears on Chinese maritime maps, Beijing has claimed ownership over the entire South China Sea, including in areas that effectively encroach on the exclusive economic zones of other countries. In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague struck down China’s claims. The Philippines had gone to court to seek international intervention after Beijing effectively seized control of Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea in 2012. On Thursday, Philippine government officials did not immediately respond to requests from BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service, for comment on the statement issued by the Chinese embassy. However, Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. did comment via Twitter on the ongoing negotiations over the Code of Conduct. “China has my word on that and it will be a COC with which the rest of the world will be totally comfortable, friends and enemies alike,” Locsin said in a tweet Thursday. Speaking at the ASEAN Regional Forum last week, Manila’s top diplomat said that the Philippines would “push as hard as it can for the conclusion of [an] effective and substantive Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.” The Philippine government, Locsin said then, hoped to “make substantial headway” on the negotiations for a draft code before the chairmanship of the talks moves to Myanmar next year. Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.
The United States has updated its policy on marine scientific research, requiring foreign ships to request permission before entering U.S. waters. It is the latest step by Washington to align U.S. law with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea as it seeks to champion a rules-based order despite criticism from China for not ratifying the convention.The U.S. State Department published a notice Wednesday that foreign research vessels require advance permission from the U.S. government before they can enter and operate within the United States’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) or continental shelf. The EEZ extends 200 nautical miles from the shore of any U.S. territory.“As a research nation, the United States recognizes the importance of [marine scientific research] and its valuable contributions to society, and we will continue to facilitate [marine scientific research] consent,” the State Department said in a release. “The change in policy is consistent with international law as reflected in the Law of the Sea Convention and with the practice of other coastal states and protects American citizens’ interests.”It is unclear why the policy has been changed now, but it follows increased international scrutiny on survey and research activity in disputed waters, especially in areas like the South China Sea – a zone of growing contention between the U.S. and China.Washington accuses Beijing of violating international law by claiming nearly the entirety of that sea on the basis of so-called “historic rights,” despite the overlapping claims of its neighbors in Southeast Asia.China has often hit back at U.S. criticism of Chinese conduct in the South China Sea by pointing out the U.S. Senate has not ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS, and is thus not a member of the convention, whereas China is.Greg Poling, a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the U.S. policy shift was a sign of it putting its domestic laws further in line with UNCLOS.Poling noted that during the years-long negotiations over the final text of UNCLOS, which was completed in 1982, the U.S. actually fought those parts of the convention that required permission in advance before any country performed marine scientific research in the waters of another. “The U.S. believed that marine science outside the territorial sea should be unfettered,” he said. The territorial sea refers to the 12 nautical mile boundary off a nation’s shores. “This was reflective of the pretty substantial voice that marine scientists were given in the U.S. negotiating team and the interagency taskforce that coordinated U.S. law of the sea policy.”The U.S. ultimately lost that argument, but never ratified UNCLOS anyway.Constant encroachmentsChina operates the largest fleet of government-owned research and survey vessels in the world, and has stoked diplomatic tensions by regularly sending ships into the EEZs of neighboring Southeast Asian nations.The deployment of two such survey ships at Reed Bank, a submerged feature in the South China Sea disputed between China and the Philippines, prompted the Philippines to file a diplomatic protest to Beijing in mid-August. Ship-tracking data shows that despite this protest, China’s research fleet still regularly intrudes into Philippine waters.Occasionally, China’s survey ships have traveled within 30 nautical miles of U.S. territories in the Pacific, such as Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands, according to a report by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.However, such activities by China are not necessarily forbidden under the new policy.According to the U.S. Office of Ocean and Polar Affairs, marine scientific research only includes “those activities undertaken in the ocean to expand knowledge of the marine environment and its processes.”Hydrographic surveys – including those for military purposes -- and resource exploration, which China’s research fleet is known for, are instead considered “marine data collection,” and thus are not affected under the updated policy. Rather, it points to a broader shift and closer embrace of provisions of UNCLOS by Washington.US change of stanceThe U.S. formally changed its stance on maritime claims in the South China Sea in early July, aligning its position with that of a landmark 2016 arbitration award from a case brought by the Philippines against China that decided China’s claims to the disputed waters were inconsistent with UNCLOS.Secretary of State Mike Pompeo underscored that position in a speech last Friday to Association of Southeast Asians (ASEAN), which had published a joint communique stressing the importance of UNCLOS in guiding behavior and settling disputes in the South China Sea a day earlier. Poling believes the time is ripe for the U.S. to take the bigger step of ratifying UNCLOS, but concedes the chances of that happening are poor, short of major change in the domestic political landscape in the U.S. Many Republican lawmakers, in particular, consider accession to such conventions an infringement of national sovereignty.“It is definitely time for the U.S. to ratify UNCLOS,” Poling said. “But it is unlikely without a Democratic majority in the Senate and a concerted push from the White House. A loud wing of the Republican Party just isn’t interested in something with the word ‘United Nations’ attached to it, no matter how important for US national interests,” he said.
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.