China claims most parts of the strategic waterway, where trillion dollars’ worth of ship-borne goods pass through annually. It has also installed defense facilities on its man-made islands there.
However, the Asian power’s maritime ambitions were challenged by the Philippines, another claimant nation, in the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague. The tribunal, in a June 2016 decision, ruled in Manila’s favor.
In a joint statement issued after a trilateral dialogue on the sidelines of the 50th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Ministerial Meeting in Manila, the US, Australia, and Japan denounced Beijing’s maritime encroachment and urged Manila to follow the arbitral ruling.
The three countries likewise reminded China to recognize the international court’s decision, noting that the verdict is “final and legally binding on both parties.”
The three nations are among ASEAN’s dialogue partners.
“The Ministers urged… claimants to refrain from land reclamation, construction of outposts, militarization of disputed features, and undertaking unilateral actions that cause permanent physical change to the marine environment,” the statement read.
Aside from the Philippines and China, three other ASEAN countries — Vietnam, Brunei, and Malaysia — have overlapping claims in the South China Sea.
Taking office shortly before Manila won in the legal battle against China, Philippine President Rodrigo R. Duterte sought warmer ties with Beijing while aiming to draw in billions of dollars in Chinese aid and investment.
Mr. Duterte has set aside the verdict and vowed to revisit it later in his term.
CODE OF CONDUCT
Fifteen years ago, China and ASEAN members committed to sign a Code of Conduct (CoC) for the South China Sea, but progress has been slow amid the maritime dispute over the strategic waterway.
In the absence of a legally binding agreement, the parties involved adopted in 2002 a separate document called the Declaration on the Conduct (DoC) of parties involved in the sea row, which urges claimants to exercise restraint and non-militarization of the sea.
In the same statement yesterday, the three countries called on ASEAN and Beijing to “fully and effectively” enforce the DoC and acknowledged the consensus reached by the regional-bloc on the framework for the planned CoC.
“The Ministers further urged ASEAN member states and China to ensure that the CoC be finalized in a timely manner, and that it be legally binding, meaningful, effective, and consistent with international law,” they said.
Last April, ASEAN countries, under Mr. Duterte’s chairmanship, released a communique that went easy on China by avoiding references to international concerns over “land reclamation” and “escalation of activities,” which were included in the text issued at last year’s meeting in Laos.
On Sunday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned any interference from “outside parties” could disrupt the negotiations over the CoC.
While the US is not a claimant nation and maintains it takes no sides in the territorial conflict, it has condemned what it qualified as China’s “militarization” of the sea and has repeatedly deployed warships in waters near reefs controlled by Beijing.
Meanwhile, Beijing and Tokyo also contest a string of Japanese-administered islets in the East China Sea, known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China.