Retired Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonio Carpio said on Tuesday that the United States’ new position on the disputed South China Sea sends a "very strong" message to China that Washington is supporting Southeast Asian coastal states in their disputes against Beijing’s expansive claims over the South China Sea.
"This sends a very strong message to China that the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei have the backing of the US in protecting their exclusive economic zones (EEZ) in the South China Sea," Carpio told reporters in a virtual press conference.
Carpio was referring to the new statement made by US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo that “Beijing’s claims to offshore resources across most of the South China Sea are completely unlawful, as is its campaign of bullying to control them.”
Pompeo added that “the world will not allow Beijing to treat the South China Sea as its maritime empire" and expressed solidarity with its allies in Southeast Asia.
Carpio said the exclusive economic zone is 200 nautical miles beyond a coastal state's territorial sea. The Philippine Constitution says the state shall reserve the use and enjoyment of the EEZ's marine wealth exclusively to Filipino citizens.
Carpio stressed that the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) guarantees that all states have the freedom of navigation and overflight in the EEZs and the high seas of the world, which means they can sail or fly over these areas without getting the consent of any coastal state.
By conducting freedom of navigation and overflight exercises in the EEZs and high seas of the South China Sea, the world's naval powers are enforcing the 2016 arbitral ruling that invalidated China's nine-dash line claims over the resource-rich shipping route, he said.
However, China continuously refused to recognize the arbitral award four years after it was handed down.
These "peaceful and lawful" freedom of navigation and overflight operations are the "most robust and most powerful enforcement" of the arbitral ruling, Carpio said.
The former SC magistrate said Southeast Asian coastal states that are asserting their rights to their EEZs have a "natural strategic partnership" with the US and other naval powers outside the region and should, therefore, welcome their freedom of navigation and overflight operations.
"If China persists in its aggressive encroachment of the EEZs of the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) coastal states, then ASEAN coastal states can respond by joining the outside naval powers in their freedom of navigation and overflight operations in the exclusive economic zones and high seas of the South China Sea," Carpio said.
President Rodrigo Duterte had set the ruling aside in pursuit of friendlier ties with China, but vowed to raise it “at a proper time.”