VIENTIANE—US President Barack Obama warned Beijing Thursday it could not ignore a tribunal’s ruling rejecting its sweeping claims to the South China Sea, driving tensions higher in a territorial row that threatens regional security.
The dispute has raised fears of military confrontation between the world’s superpowers, with China determined to cement control of the strategically vital waters despite a July verdict that its claims have no legal basis.
“The landmark arbitration ruling in July, which is binding, helped to clarify maritime rights in the region,” Obama told Southeast Asian leaders at a summit in Laos.
“I recognize this raises tensions but I also look forward to discussing how we can constructively move forward together to lower tensions and promote diplomacy and stability.”
The verdict by an international tribunal in The Hague said China’s claims to most of the waters—through which $5 trillion in global shipping trade passes annually—had no legal basis.
It also said that a massive burst of artificial island-building activity undertaken by China in recent years in a bid to bolster its claims was illegal.
China angrily vowed to ignore the ruling, describing it as “waste paper,” even though it had legal force through the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Obama’s emphasis on the ruling being “binding” will undoubtedly attract a strong reaction from China, which has argued the United States has no role to play in the dispute.
Other claimants in the sea are the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei—all part of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations bloc meeting in Laos—plus Taiwan.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang is also in Laos this week, with Asean hosting a series of regional meetings, and will meet Obama later Thursday at an 18-nation East Asia summit.
Migraine forced President Rodrigo Duterte to skip two of his scheduled events on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit here.
Duterte, who recently made headlines for cussing at US President Barack Obama, was absent in two events Thursday morning, including the US-Asean summit hosted by the American leader and the India-Asean meeting because of a severe headache.
In a text message to reporters here, Peace Process Secretary Jesus Dureza confirmed that the President was not feeling well since Wednesday night.
“He was not feeling well in the morning so he missed the two sessions,” Dureza said.
“But he was able to attend the East Asia Summit with 18 world leaders and the rest of the day’s remaining schedule until departure for Indonesia early evening,” he added.
Special Assistant to the President Christopher Go said that while the President failed to attend the two earlier meetings, he was able to give a “more than 10-minute speech” at the East Asia Summit, where he discussed human rights.
Go said Duterte did not follow the prepared speech but went impromptu with “very strong words.”
Foreign Affairs spokesman Charles Jose said Duterte had met Obama during the summit and the two had ironed out their differences.
Obama later told the press he urged Duterte to conduct his war on illegal drugs “the right way,” after more than 2,000 suspected drug pushers and users were killed in a crackdown in just over two months.
“As despicable as these [crime] networks may be and as much damage as they do, it is important from our perspective to make sure that we do it the right way,” Obama told reporters when asked about his conversation with Duterte on the sidelines of the regional summit in Laos.
“Because the consequences of when you do it the wrong way are innocent people get hurt and you have a bunch of unintended consequences that don’t solve the problem.”
Relations between long time allies the US and the Philippines saw a spectacular setback this week after Duterte branded Obama a “son of a whore” for questioning his human rights record.
The outburst on Monday was in response to being told Obama planned to raise concerns about his war on drugs.
“You must be respectful. Do not just throw away questions and statements. Son of a whore, I will curse you in that forum,” Duterte told reporters shortly before flying to Laos.
“We will be wallowing in the mud like pigs if you do that to me.”
At the press conference marking the end of his trip to Laos, Obama said he was unfazed by Duterte’s jibe.
“I don’t take these comments personally because it seems as if this is a phrase he’s used repeatedly including directed at the pope and others,” adding that such choice words were “a habit, a way of speaking for him.”
Duterte has branded Pope Francis, the US ambassador to Manila and the United Nations as “sons of whores.”
However, Obama canceled a meeting with Duterte scheduled for Tuesday because of the outburst.
They met briefly on Wednesday night before a leaders’ dinner, but only exchanged “pleasantries,” the White House said.
Duterte was elected to office in a landslide this year after pledging to kill 100,000 people in an unprecedented war on crime.
He vowed in the campaign that so many bodies would be dumped in Manila Bay that the fish there would grow fat from feeding on them.
Duterte has also repeatedly promised to protect police from prosecution if they are charged over the deaths and insisted human rights cannot get in the way of his war.
Duterte has said the Philippines is in danger of becoming a “narco state”, and eliminating drugs in society is the top priority of his administrations.
On the day he was sworn into office, June 30, Duterte urged people living in a Manila slum to kill drug addicts in their community.
His handpicked police chief, Ronald dela Rosa, last month called for drug addicts to kill traffickers and burn down their homes.
The United Nations special rapporteur on summary executions has warned incitement to kill is a crime under international law.
Despite growing condemnation of the comments and what rights groups say are rampant extrajudicial killings, Duterte has vowed to continue.
“More people will be killed, plenty will be killed until the last pusher is out of the streets,” Duterte said on Monday.
Earlier, Obama said the ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in favor of the Philippines in its territorial row with China was already binding, and urged Asean leaders to use the decision constructively to move forward and lower tensions in the region.
“With respect to maritime issues, we’ll continue to work to ensure that disputes are resolved peacefully including in the SCS. The landmark
arbitration ruling in July which is binding helped clarify maritime
rights in the region,” he said.
Leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations on Wednesday expressed serious concern over China’s continued and escalating reclamation activities in disputed areas in the South China Sea, even as the 10-member regional bloc avoided mentioning a landmark ruling favoring the Philippines in its row with Beijing.
The Philippines had recently released photos of Beijing’s island building in the Scarborough Shoal, labelled “illegal” by the arbitral tribunal whom Philippine officials described as a “worrisome” threat to the country’s territorial integrity.
Obama has urged China to adhere to the rule of law and not take unilateral measures that could raise tensions.
China in turn accuses the United States of interference and using the ruling to stoke confrontation.
“I recognize this raises tensions,” Obama said referring to the ruling “but I also look forward to discussing how we can constructively move forward together to lower tensions and promote diplomacy and stability.”
Obama added that the United States will continue deepening its economic partnerships within the Asean, through the completion of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), a free trade agreement of Pacific Rim countries which removes tariff and non-traffic barriers in trade.
The United States also committed to address transnational threats and combat terrorism in Southeast Asia.
“We’re expanding our cooperation to address transnational threats.
We will stay vigilant in combating terrorism, including in Southeast Asia, where we have very strong partnerships with many of you.”
Asean leaders released a statement on Wednesday saying they were “seriously concerned” over recent developments in the sea.
But intensive Chinese lobbying helped to ensure there was no mention of the July ruling in the Asean statement.
Asean works by consensus, and China has successfully pressured Cambodia and Laos in recent years to ensure the bloc does not gang together to pressure Beijing.
However, the Philippines released photos on Wednesday it said showed renewed Chinese island-building activity, in a deliberate move to throw the issue into the spotlight.
The Chinese ships were at Scarborough Shoal, a small fishing ground within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone that China took control of in 2012.
If China did build an island at the shoal, it could lead to a military outpost just 230 kilometers from the main Philippine island, where US forces are stationed.
It would also be a major step in China’s quest to control the sea, giving it the ability to enforce an air defense identification zone across the waters.
Obama warned Chinese President Xi Jinping in March not to build at the shoal.
Chinese island-building in the Spratlys archipelago—another strategically important location—has already triggered various US military shows of strength.
The United States has sent warships close to the new islands, and warplanes over them, deeply angering China.
Security analysts have said Chinese island-building at Scarborough Shoal could trigger a military confrontation.
China insisted repeatedly this week it was not undertaking any island-building activities at the shoal.
A barrage of other security threats were also in focus in Laos on Thursday, including North Korea’s nuclear ambitions following its latest missile tests.
Obama warned on Monday that Kim Jong-Un’s regime was dooming itself to further isolation, and the UN Security Council condemned the tests.
But North Korea responded by threatening on Wednesday to take “further significant measures.” With AFP
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