When Philippine President Aquino returned from Tokyo on September 28, not only did he bring home Us$1.4 billion in new investment but also Japanese support for a multilateral approach to resolving the dispute with China over territories in the South China Sea or the West Philippines Sea as the Filipinos call it or the East Sea that the Vietnamese use.
At the conclusion of his Tokyo visit, the Philippine leader and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda issued a statement opposing China’s position that calls for a bilateral solution to conflicting claims to the Spratly Islands.
The joint communiqué said, “The two leaders 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.”
It emphasized “the need for a rules-based (approach) for addressing and resolving disputes and promoting cooperation” in the region. The leaders also “expressed their hope of the early formulation of a legally binding code of conduct that is consistent with established international law.”
The two leaders said, “As leaders of countries sharing lines of communication, they also confirmed that freedom of navigation, unimpeded commerce, and compliance with established international law, including the Unclos (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea), and the peaceful settlement of disputes serve the interests of the two and the whole region.”
China claims all of the West Philippine Sea and insists it has sole rights to all of the area, including islands claimed by the Philippines. Japan’s intervention is likely to anger China.
China has called for bilateral negotiations on the disputes, a strategy that would effectively shut out other countries like the United States and Asean members.
The Chinese position goes against history and precedence.
For example, Vietnamese fishermen have been present in the Paracel and Truong Sa archipelagos for a thousand years, while the first visit of China to those islands was recorded in 1996.
Japan aligns itself with the four Asean members that lay claim to territorial rights in the sea-Brunei, Malaysia Philippines and Vietnam.
The Philippines has proposed that Manila and Tokyo set up a “permanent working group” that would regularly tackle other Asian maritime concerns. This proposal has the potential of becoming the working mechanism of a Japan, Philippines and Vietnam axis. The two Asean members have also been vocal about the recent encounters with intrusions of the Chinese in the sea. They have been building their own naval capability to stand up to the Chinese Navy that is now projecting its growing might in a display of gunboat diplomacy.
Japan’s initiative is significant in that it is concerned about its own freedom of navigation in the disputed region.
President Aquino’s classic balance of power move adds another dimension to the sea standoff that will continue to be a contentious issue until a diplomatic effort brings closure.
Given China’s aggressive stance, will this ever happen?
Top News from Southeast Asia
October 2 , 2011
These were the most newsworthy stories published by Asean Affairs during the week of September 24-30.