Beijing (China Daily/ANN) - The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) in the Philippines is set to undertake what it calls a "new diplomatic initiative" aimed at defusing tensions between the Philippines and China over the Scarborough Shoal in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
This was disclosed on Wednesday by Raul Hernandez, the DFA spokesperson, when asked about published reports that Chinese maritime ships were denying Filipino fishermen access to their traditional fishing grounds in the lagoon of the rock formation.
Manila refers to the shoal as Bajo de Masinloc and Panatag Shoal. On the other hand, China calls it Huangyan Island and insists it is part of Chinese territory.
In a text message, Hernandez said the foreign office was "endeavouring to undertake a new diplomatic initiative, which we hope will defuse the situation."
The DFA, however, "is not prepared to discuss this as of this time," he told the Philippine Daily Inquirer.
On Tuesday, the military reported that the number of Chinese vessels in the shoal had increased to 33, from 14 last week.
China currently has three big ships in the area, in addition to seven Chinese fishing vessels and 23 utility boats.
The Philippines has only two vessels in the lagoon. These are the BRP Edsa, a Coast Guard search-and-rescue ship, and the MCS 3001, a vessel belonging to the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources.
Asked if the conflict would be raised by the Philippines anew during this month's scheduled dialogue between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and the United States, which Manila would be hosting, Hernandez said the dialogue "is a regular meeting to enhance the relations of both sides and chart the course of Asean and US partnership."
Aside from the Philippines, Asean also groups Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Brunei Darussalam.
On Tuesday, Foreign Affairs secretary Albert del Rosario asserted anew that abiding by the rules set by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) would be the legitimate way of dealing with conflicting and overlapping claims in the West Philippine Sea.
He reiterated the call as the country commemorated the 30th anniversary of the signing of the UNCLOS by 159 UN member-states, including the Philippines, during a 1982 conference in Montego Bay, Jamaica.
On May 8, 1984, the country became the 11th state to ratify the international agreement, which entered into force on Nov. 16, 1994.
In a statement, Del Rosario said UNCLOS "has never been more important to the Philippines than today when overlapping maritime claims threaten as never before the peace and prosperity in our part of the world."
"The Philippines believes that the rules-based approach in UNCLOS, together with the norms in the UN Charter and international law, are the way forward in addressing in a just, peaceful and lasting manner the maritime disputes in the West Philippine Sea," he also said.
The DFA head defined the UNCLOS as the "international law governing the rights and responsibilities of nations - big, as well as small, rich or poor, coastal and landlocked - in their use of the world's oceans."
"It enshrines the norms that determine the rights of states over maritime areas and contains important mechanisms for the peaceful settlement of disputes on matters relating to the oceans," he emphasised.
According to Del Rosario, "together with our commemoration of the 30th anniversary of UNCLOS this year, we are also commemorating this year the 30th anniversary of the UN Manila Declaration on the Peaceful Settlement of International Disputes, which was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1982."
"This is another historic and important document, particularly at this time when the Philippines is exerting every effort to address and resolve conflicting claims in the West Philippine Sea," he added.
For over four weeks now, Manila and Beijing have been involved in a dispute over the Scarborough Shoal, located some 220 kilometres west of Zambales province.
Last week, Del Rosario told the Philippine Daily Inquirer the country would unilaterally bring the conflict to the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) following Beijing's rejection of its call for the body's arbitration of the issue.
In a text message from Washington, DC, he said the DFA was '"currently making the necessary preparations" for the presentation of the dispute to the tribunal, which is based in Hamburg, Germany.
On April 17, Del Rosario asked China to join the Philippines in bringing the issue to ITLOS but the Beijing government rejected the invitation.
He pointed out that Chinese ships were "currently engaged in illegal activities in Bajo de Masinloc," which he declared was 'within the Philippines' 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone."
"The whole world knows that China has myriad more ships and aircraft than the Philippines. At day's end, however, we hope to demonstrate that international law would be the great equaliser," he noted.
At the same time, Del Rosario said "it is in the best interest of all claimants and the region to transform the West Philippine Sea into a Zone of Peace, Freedom, Friendship and Cooperation, which advocates a rules-based approach with an actionable framework to define, clarify and segregate - in accordance with UNCLOS - the disputed and non-disputed areas of the West Philippine Sea."