BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN - The Philippines is determined to challenge China's territorial claims in the South China Sea before a U.N. arbitral tribunal, in a clear rebuff to Beijing's pleas to keep their dispute a bilateral issue, according to Philippine officials.
A Philippine diplomat, speaking amid a summit in Brunei of leaders of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, told Kyodo News that his government will pursue the case "all the way."
"Our position is very clear (on that)," the diplomat added.
In January, Manila initiated arbitral proceedings under the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS, to clarify the country's maritime entitlements in the disputed South China Sea.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino said Manila wants to get something in writing, be it a treaty or an agreement, which spells out clearly how rival claimants to the South China Sea should behave.
"What we are after is (clarification)," Aquino said. "This is a process, an avenue open for all of us to finally come up with something that is definitive (like) what are your entitlements, what are your obligations, and then have a permanence of clarity, and not something that they can take back."
"With clarity, you behave with each other (correctly) as opposed to differing interpretations or what constitutes correct behavior," he said.
"There is no turning back," said another Philippine diplomat regarding his government's resolve to bring the territorial disputes with China to an arbitral tribunal under UNCLOS.
"Diplomacy is an option, but you cannot talk to another if the other party can't be trusted in the first place, or if that party insists on a certain set of rules that will not work for us," he said.
China has "firmly opposed" the Philippine decision, insisting the territorial dispute is a bilateral matter that should be resolved by the two countries.
To Beijing, the Philippines' latest move is "a completely political provocation under the disguise of legal procedures," said a document China circulated among some ASEAN members.
"The crux of the current problem is the Philippines' attempt to make its provocative moves 'legal' through 'abuse of process' against China, and to gain sympathy and moral support from the international community," the document says.
It warns that the "Philippines' acts will seriously undermine efforts to properly handle and resolve relevant issues." It did not elaborate. "The international community needs to be clear-minded about this."
"The Philippines' submission to arbitration against China at this point has created obstacles for negotiated settlement of disputes between the two sides," the paper says. "Such move violates the agreement reached between China and the Philippines on resolving disputes through bilateral negotiations."
The paper stresses the need for ASEAN "to take the right position on this matter" and urges the Philippines "to correct its mistake."
China has also accused the Philippines of violating the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, or DOC, which ASEAN and China inked in 2002.
Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario disagrees, saying the Philippine arbitral initiative will benefit all parties.
He said the U.N. process will clearly define maritime entitlements of both the Philippines and China under UNCLOS like fishing rights, rights to resources and rights to enforce sea laws within each country's exclusive economic zone.
"For ASEAN and the rest of the global community, the clarification of maritime entitlements under UNCLOS would assure peace, security, stability and freedom of navigation in the region," he said.
The Philippines' desire to have a legally binding code of conduct aimed at reducing conflicts in the South China Sea has not changed, said Del Rosario, adding Manila will continue to work with ASEAN and China in crafting such a code and in implementing its commitments under the DOC.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said, "The course that the Philippines has chosen, in our view, is consistent with the DOC, consistent with the ASEAN-China process."
The DOC, he said, "recognizes the need to exercise self-restraint in terms of actions at sea, recognizes the need to solve problems through diplomatic negotiations and by respecting international law."
However, Natalegawa stressed the need "to ensure a great deal of transparency and sharing of information, so whatever the rationale behind it, is not seen to be inimical, is not seen to be unfriendly towards anyone."
Asked whether the step taken by the Philippines will further delay the start of the talks, Natalegawa said, "I think it's too early to say that."
ASEAN is eager to commence formal talks with China on hammering out a code of conduct, but an ASEAN diplomat claims Beijing is "temporizing" the talks.
Indeed, the China paper calls the move by the Philippines "a totally irresponsible act that has severely undermined the atmosphere for China and ASEAN to start consultation process."
"Should the Philippines be allowed to have its way," the paper warns "the spirit and principles of the DOC will face a grave challenge, the start of the COC will be severely disrupted, and efforts made by countries in the region over the years to uphold peace and stability in the South China Sea will be instantly ruined."