By Camille Elemia
Territorial disputes shouldn’t be solved through “coercion and intimidation,” the Philippines said Friday as its diplomats prepared to confront Chinese counterparts about China’s recent actions in contested waters, including pointing a military-grade laser at the Filipino coast guard.
Philippine Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Ma. Theresa Lazaro delivered the message before she, Chinese Foreign Vice Minister Sun Weidong, and their respective delegations faced off in Manila for talks on the South China Sea.
Bilateral disputes over territorial claims in the sea and related tensions “continue to remain a serious concern to the Filipino people,” Lazaro said.
“Both our countries’ leaders agreed that maritime issues should be addressed through diplomacy and dialogue and never through coercion and intimidation. … The meeting today is an attempt to follow through on that decision,” Lazaro said in her opening remarks on Friday.
Friday’s meeting was the seventh round of talks in as many years of the so-called China-Philippines Bilateral Consultation Mechanism (BCM) on the South China Sea.
Friday’s talks concluded two days of meetings in Manila during which the two countries assessed their bilateral relationship and aired concerns.
The Philippine foreign affairs department issued a statement afterward confirming the two nations “reaffirmed their adherence to international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and their commitment to peace and stability in the South China Sea.”
In addition, they agreed to “finalize an effective and substantive Code of Conduct.”
The BCM talks were first convened in 2017 as a platform for confidence-building and maritime cooperation. At Friday’s session, China and the Philippines were also set to discuss cooperation including on fisheries and marine environmental protection.
Both countries as well as several Southeast Asian neighbors and Taiwan have overlapping claims in the South China Sea.
As the two delegations began Friday’s talks, the Philippines called for “frank” discussions, while China insisted on “friendly consultations.”
“It is the Philippines’ fervent hope that the discussions would … realize a more peaceful and stable situation in the West Philippine Sea/South China Sea which would ultimately contribute to regional peace and development,” Lazaro said.
The meeting took place weeks after Manila protested an incident in which a China Coast Guard ship (CCG) allegedly pointed a laser towards a Philippine Coast Guard vessel in Ayungin Shoal (Second Thomas Shoal).
Manila also recently lodged a complaint about the swarming of more than 40 Chinese fishing boats, which were escorted by a CCG ship and a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy ship near Pag-asa (Thitu), one of the Philippine-occupied islands in the disputed waters.
“We should not allow specific differences to define our bilateral relations, or allow certain disputes to stand in the way of overall cooperation. We need to properly deal with these issues through friendly consultations,” Sun said in his opening statement Friday before the two sides took their meeting behind closed doors.
The delegation from Beijing was expected to raise China’s objection to Manila’s recent decision to give the American military expanded access on a rotating basis to bases in the Philippines, amid tensions over Taiwan.
A spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Manila had earlier said that these moves “are part of the U.S. efforts to encircle and contain China through its military alliance” with the Philippines.