By Joyce Ann L. Rocamora

Department of Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo (PNA photo by Avito Dalan)

MANILA – Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo on Thursday said there is no new directive to soften actions in asserting the country’s sovereign rights over the West Philippine Sea (WPS).

In a media forum in Manila, the Filipino top diplomat said the Philippines has always and will maintain a policy to manage disputes diplomatically and peacefully while firmly defending its maritime rights over the area.

“So, our position has not changed, it remains the same. I think that’s how we will proceed in whatever future discussions we have,” he said.

Manalo said the government would also sustain a policy of transparency in the WPS, noting that the country’s actions have been consistently “hinged on international law”.

The statement was in response to a question whether Manila will retain its so-called “assertive transparency,” which involves publicizing illegal and unilateral actions conducted within Philippine waters.

“The Philippines’ role as vanguard of the rule of law, particularly the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) as the fundamental and only arbiter of the overlapping claims and disputes in the South China Sea, can be seen as an extension of Philippine good global citizenship as a peacemaker, rule-shaper and consensus-builder, as much as it is about Philippine territorial integrity and national sovereignty,” he said.

Manalo said Manila’s “principled rules-based approach on the South China Sea/West Philippine Sea” is also a reflection that Manila is championing “nothing less, and nothing more, than what is just”.

“When a state becomes a party to a Treaty, it is under a legal obligation to bring its laws and conduct into conformity with the Treaty,” he said, referring to the UNCLOS.

“Efforts seeking to shape and use rules, going against international law, should be opposed or not accepted,” he added.

In 2016, an Arbitral Tribunal issued a landmark award that invalidated China’s expansive claims in the South China Sea.

The ruling was based on the UNCLOS, which both China and the Philippines are parties.

Last Jan. 17, the two nations met for the 8th Bilateral Consultation Mechanism on the South China Sea (BCM) and discussed ways to “de-escalate the situation in the South China Sea”.

Both sides agreed to “calmly deal with incidents, if any, through diplomacy”.

Not part of US-China rivalry

In the same forum, Manalo reiterated that the South China Sea disputes are not at all centered on the US-China rivalry.

He stressed that the region is composed of a number of nations and is not shaped by just one or two powers.

“Subscribing strictly to the prism of this rivalry does not help in an honest understanding of the situation. Firstly, it puts distinct and legitimate rights and interests of countries such as the Philippines aside, and secondary to the interests of the rivals,” he said.

“Secondly, it purposely obscures good judgment: actions that are clearly illegal in international law and against the UN Charter are sometimes rationalized under the pretext of this rivalry,” he added. (PNA)