By Luis Liwanag and Jojo Rinoza, Tia Asmara and Ronna Nirmala
The Philippines on Tuesday backed Washington’s tougher stance on the South China Sea while Indonesia described it as “normal,” a day after America’s top diplomat declared that the world would not allow Beijing to treat the contested waterway as “its maritime empire.”
In Manila, the Philippine defense chief welcomed the statement from U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who vowed that America stood with its Southeast Asian allies “in protecting their sovereign rights to offshore resources.” But government officials in neighboring Malaysia, another of the claimants to the South China Sea, declined to comment on what Pompeo said.
The Philippines was urging Beijing to heed the international community’s call, which was in the “best interest of regional stability,” said Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, who had expressed concern lately about Chinese naval maneuvers in the sea region.
“We strongly agree with the position of the international community that there should be a rules-based order in the South China Sea,” Lorenzana said in a statement.
He also reiterated Manila’s call for Beijing to comply with a landmark July 2016 ruling by an international arbitration court in The Hague that went in favor of the Philippines and struck down the legal basis of Beijing’s vast claims to the sea.
“We urge China to comply with the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) ruling, and abide by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) to which it is a signatory,” Lorenzana said.
The Philippines was also pushing for the finalization of a “substantive” code of conduct in the potentially mineral-rich South China Sea region to prevent an escalation of tension, the defense secretary said.
Also on Tuesday, a former Philippine foreign secretary told an online forum of South China Sea experts that the Philippines should take the issue of the 2016 ruling “off the shelf” and raise it before the 75th session of the United Nations General Assembly this coming September.
“This will be the opportune moment because the upcoming UNGA session is the commitment to multilateralism,” Albert del Rosario said.
“We believe that the award has multilateral support because it benefits the coastal states of the South China Sea, whose lands and seas are encroached upon by China’s ‘Nine-Dash Line,’” del Rosario said, referring to a line on official Chinese maps that demarcates its territorial claims in the South China Sea.
Apart from China and the Philippines, Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam also have contending claims in the maritime region.
Indonesia, the largest country in Southeast Asia, has no official claims there. However, tensions have arisen between Jakarta and Beijing over the presence of Chinese fishing boats off the Natuna Islands, an Indonesian chain in the sea’s far southern reaches, in 2016 and late 2019.
Pompeo included the Natuna Islands in his statement that branded Beijing’s claims to offshore resources across most of the South China Sea as “completely unlawful.”
“[T]he United States rejects any PRC maritime claim in the waters surrounding Vanguard Bank (off Vietnam), Luconia Shoals (off Malaysia), waters in Brunei’s EEZ, and Natuna Besar (off Indonesia),” he said, referring to the People’s Republic of China.
“Any PRC action to harass other states’ fishing or hydrocarbon development in these waters – or to carry out such activities unilaterally – is unlawful,” Pompeo added.
While Chinese ships have asserted sovereignty and trespassed into Indonesian waters off the Natuna chain, Indonesia maintains that it has no overlapping claims with Beijing in the maritime region and is not a party to the territorial disputes.
Asked about the U.S. policy statement, a spokesman for Indonesia’s foreign ministry declined to comment directly on it but called any country’s support for Indonesian rights in the Natuna waters “normal.”
“Indonesia’s position concerning Natuna’s waters is always firm and consistent, and it is based on the UNCLOS. The tribunal’s award of 2016 confirmed Indonesia’s position,” Teuku Faizasyah, the spokesman for the ministry, told BenarNews.
According to a local analyst, some Indonesians believe that Jakarta should take a tougher stance on the issue of the Natunas.
“Indonesia should reaffirm its disappointment with China’s reluctance to show good will by respecting Indonesia’s sovereignty in the North Natuna Sea,” Dinna Prapto Raharja, a lecturer at Jakarta-based Binus University, told BenarNews.
In Kuala Lumpur, meanwhile, officials with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs refused to comment to BenarNews about Pompeo’s statement.
Malaysia’s government is in a difficult position to come out with critical statements about the South China Sea because it is a relatively small power in the region and must be careful to preserve its economic ties with Beijing, suggested Ramli Dollah, a security analyst at Universiti Malaysia Sabah.
“Malaysia claims and controls numerous reefs and islands in the South China Sea along with many other nations. However, it also faces a more powerful claimant, namely China, which recently is more assertive on their claim in this area,” Ramli told BenarNews.
“[T]his situation becomes increasingly difficult when Malaysia-China economic ties are also affected by the overlapping problem, which creates a dilemma for policymakers in this country.”
In Ramli’s view, the most effective way for Kuala Lumpur to protect its sovereignty in the sea region is to voice concerns about its territorial claims through multilateral diplomacy, such as via the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) or United Nations.
In mid-April, Malaysia kept largely quiet, when tensions arose in the South China Sea and the United States and Australia sent warships to the area, after a Chinese survey ship deployed close to a Malaysian-contracted oil exploration vessel operating in Malaysian waters.
On Tuesday, a report published by the country’s auditor-general revealed that Chinese navy and coast guard ships had intruded into Malaysian waters off Borneo Island 89 times between 2016 and 2019.
China: US sowing discord
China, for its part, has ignored the arbitration court’s ruling, whose fourth anniversary fell on Sunday.
On July 12, Beijing’s embassy in Manila reiterated that it viewed the decision as “illegal and invalid” and that Beijing would “never accept any claim or action” based on the award.
And a day after Pompeo’s statement in which he called Beijing’s claims to most of the South China Sea “completely unlawful” and accused the Asian power of engaging in a “campaign of bullying” to control offshore resources, China’s government shot back.
Beijing’s embassy in Washington issued a statement Tuesday alleging that the United States was distorting the facts and international law, including UNCLOS, in a bid “to sow discord between China and other littoral countries.”
“The United States is not a country directly involved in the disputes. However, it has kept interfering in the issue,” the embassy said.
“Under the pretext of preserving stability, it is flexing muscles, stirring up tension and inciting confrontation in the region.”
Nisha David and Noah Lee in Kuala Lumpur, and Jason Gutierrez in Manila, contributed to this report.