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Washington, Beijing spar over Philippines’ court case against China

TOKYO — U.S. remarks in support of a Philippine marines outpost on a disputed reef are “irresponsible,” and Manila’s international court claim on islands in the South China Sea has “seriously damaged” bilateral relations, Chinese officials said this week.

The terse remarks traded between diplomats came in advance of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s trip to Hawaii to talk with representatives from Southeast Asian nations — several of which dispute China’s claim to about 90 percent of the South China Sea and its included islands. Hagel is scheduled to fly to Japan, Mongolia and China afterward.

Chinese officials in Beijing and Manila lashed out Tuesday against The Philippines for filing a 4,000-page memorial — akin to an opening argument — at the international Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague on March 30. The memorial argues that a Chinese map commonly known as the “9-dash line map,” which Beijing uses to assert control over about 90 percent of the South China Sea, violates international law.

“After the Philippine side initiated the arbitration, the Chinese side promptly made its position clear that China does not accept the arbitration,” said Sun Xiangyang, Charge d’Affaires of the Chinese Embassy in Manila on Tuesday. “What the Philippine side did seriously damage bilateral relations with China.”

Both countries are signatories to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. However, Sun said the dispute over South China Sea territories falls outside the framework of the convention.

The court cannot rule on the sovereignty of hundreds of rocks, reefs and islands within the sea — most of which are valuable for the projected billions of dollars worth of energy resources and fisheries in their nearby waters. But the court can rule on whether several of the oft-submerged islands are actually considered land. If they are not, the areas could revert to The Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, under generally accepted interpretations of international law. Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia and autonomous Taiwan could all use similar arguments against China if the Philippine claim is successful.

Chinese officials also spoke out against a recent resupply mission of a rusting Philippine ship grounded at the disputed Second Thomas Shoal, located about 120 miles west of the Philippine island of Palawan. The shoal has been garrisoned since 1999 by Philippine marines stationed aboard the ship.

Chinese ships attempted to block a Philippine vessel from resupplying the marines on Saturday, but were unsuccessful.

On Monday, State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters in Washington that the Chinese attempt at obstruction was “a provocative and destabilizing action.”

“This action raises tensions and is inconsistent with the important principle of freedom of navigation,” Harf said.

Although the U.S. takes no position on the sovereignty of the islands, Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel told Congress on February that the U.S. supports The Philippines’ right to seek international arbitration.

When asked about Harf’s comments, China foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said “it is without any doubt that the Philippine side is the one who provokes and makes troubles.”

“We urge the US to respect facts, stop making irresponsible remarks and cease to encourage the provocative and risky actions of relevant country,” Hong said.

slavin.erik@stripes.com
Twitter: @eslavin_stripes

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