Philippines joins Japan, Australia on Spratly Islands; approves hotline with Vietnam
Japan, Australia and the Philippines are seeking a peaceful resolution to the Spratlys issue -- a move in line with the policy of promoting cooperation and seeking a rules-based settlement of the territorial dispute.
At the same time, the Philippines Navy and Vietnam Navy agreed to share information and set up a hotline between its coast guards.
The Spratly Islands are claimed wholly or in part by Brunei, China, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam. The group of islands, islets, atolls, shoals, reefs, banks and cays in the South China Sea are believed to be rich in oil and gas.
In September, Japan hosted Philippine President Benigno Aquino III during a three-day working visit. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda assured the visiting leader of support for a peaceful resolution of the dispute.
In a joint statement, Noda and Aquino “confirmed that the South China Sea is vital, as it connects the world and the Asia Pacific region, and that peace and stability therein is of common interest to the international community.”
Noda and Aquino also “confirmed that freedom of navigation, unimpeded commerce, and compliance with established international law including the United Nation Convention of the Law of the Sea [UNCLOS] and the peaceful settlement of disputes serve the interests of the two countries and the whole region.
“They shared the recognition that these same interests should also be advanced and protected in the South China Sea,” the statement said.
Sea lanes are vital for trade
Like other countries, Japan has interests in the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea as it uses the vital sea-lanes for its trade. The United States earlier declared it has a national interest in the freedom of navigation in the area and that parties should resolve disputes peacefully based on customary international law.
Tensions heightened recently after Vietnamese and Philippine officials said China had become increasingly aggressive in staking its claims to the area.
During Aquino’s visit, the two governments agreed to enhance cooperation between their maritime safety authorities. Japan has agreed to send its Coast Guard to train its Philippine counterpart so it could better patrol the country’s vast coast line. Both countries also agreed to “promote exchanges and cooperation between their defense authorities.”
On Oct. 21, Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd visited with Aquino. After their meeting, the Philippine leader said he will ask Australia’s assistance in relation to the country’s claim over some areas in the Spratlys.
Rudd was on his first official visit to the Philippines to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the establishment of bilateral relations between the two countries. Aquino said Rudd is an expert in Chinese affairs and even speaks the language and his inputs will be invaluable in finding solutions to the territorial dispute in the South China Sea.
While attending the East Asian Summit in November, U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao met and discussed issues related to the South China Sea. While the leaders did not release details of their discussions, U.S. National Security Adviser Tom Donilon did speak to reporters after their meeting.
Donilon said U.S. officials want South China Sea disputes to be resolved peacefully, according to published reports. “The U.S. has an interest in the freedom of navigation, the free flow of commerce, the peaceful resolution of disputes. We don’t have a claim, we don’t take sides in the claims, but we do as a global maritime power have an interest in seeing these principles applied broadly.”
Multilateral approach sought
University of the Philippines political science professor Clarita Carlos said the actions of the Philippine side are consistent with the policy of pursuing a multilateral route on the issue.
“We have said before that South China Sea is where the world’s commerce is passing. Eighty percent of fuel needs of Japan pass through that sea, even South Korea. It is in the interests of everybody to keep these waterways free from any interdiction,” she said.
“We are on the right track to get as many people to support our view that it is in fact in the interest of everybody,” Carlos said.
Australia, U.S. maintain alliance
On the meeting between the Australians and Filipinos, Carlos explained that Australia is aligned with the United States in the region.
Australia and the United States military bases will be co-located in 2012. “Australia is part of the security structure in the area. We are also riding on that,” she said.
Australia has maintained that the Spratlys issue must be resolved based on rules-based cooperative approaches and respect for international law particularly UNCLOS.
Meanwhile, the Vietnamese and Philippine governments have agreed to step up cooperation in several areas, including maritime areas. The agreements were reached during the Oct. 26 to 28 state visit by Vietnam President Truong Tan Sang. The state visit is in line with the 35th anniversary of the establishment of bilateral relations between the two countries.
Aquino and Sang witnessed the signing of several agreements, two of which were a Memorandum of Understanding for the Enhancement of Mutual Cooperation and Information Sharing between the Philippine Navy and the Vietnamese People’s Navy and a Memorandum of Agreement on the Establishment of a Hotline Communication between the Philippine Coast Guard and the Vietnam Marine Police.
In a joint communiqué, the two leaders exchanged information and views on issues relating to the South China Sea or the Sea of Japan and reaffirmed the importance of the maintenance of peace, stability, maritime safety and security in the region.
“The two leaders stressed that a rules-based approach, adhering to international law, especially the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, is essential to address those issues through multilateral dialogue and consultations and to resolve territorial disputes by peaceful means among the parties concerned,” the joint statement said.
“They also emphasized the ASEAN centrality and the importance of the full implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea signed in 2002,” it added.
China recently has become increasingly aggressive in staking its claims to the area, cutting the cables on Vietnamese ships and harassing a Philippine boat at Reed Bank, which the Philippines claims is not part of the Spratlys.
Carlos said the tact being followed by Vietnam and the Philippines should be the norm.
“That should be the case for all claimants. We call that the functional route. That means we are going through non-political aspects. We are cooperating between our coast guards, our scientists. These are the people who really should be talking. The politicians want to divide the sea. Scientists want to preserve the ecological unity of the sea. They treat the sea as one ecological system.
“We should follow the functional route with everybody, including the non-claimants because they also have a stake on these waters,” Carlos said.