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Philippines Says Freedom of Navigation in South China Sea Under Threat

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton talks with Philippine's Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert Del Rosario prior to the start of Retreat Session of East Asia Summit Consultation in Nusa Dua, Bali, Indonesia, July 22, 2011

The Philippines foreign affairs secretary warned freedom of navigation in the South China Sea faces a potential threat, if China continues to claim ownership of the entire sea.

Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario brought up the country’s grievance over what it calls China’s intrusions during a forum at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations security forum in Bali, Indonesia. Del Rosario highlighted at least seven run-ins involving Chinese vessels in what he says are Philippine waters.

The Philippines has officially complained to China over the matter, but China said there were no intrusions because it holds sovereignty over the entire sea, based on a map from the early 20th century that delineates the sea in nine broken dashes. Del Rosario called this a “baseless” claim and said the Philippines’ sovereign rights “could be denigrated.”

Foreign Affairs spokesman Raul Hernandez reiterated del Rosario’s assertion about territories in what the country now calls the West Philippine Sea.

“The nine-dash line could not be possible because the whole area is not actually disputed. It is only the specific features in the West Philippine Sea that are disputed,” he said.

China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei are squabbling over parts or all of the South China Sea and some of its “features” - or tiny islands - which are part of the Spratly group of islands. These are believed to hold significant amounts of natural gas and oil deposits. Furthermore, the body of water is home to one of the world’s busiest sea lanes, which means key stake-holders like the United States have a vested interest in keeping them open and free of conflicts.

In his statement at the security forum, del Rosario said freedom of navigation could be under threat if China continues to ignore complaints.

The Philippines has been referring to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) as its defense against China. The convention grants nations a 200 nautical mile (more than 300 kilometers) exclusive economic zone beyond their coastlines.

Foreign Affairs spokesman Hernandez says del Rosario continues to push a proposal that promotes development and cooperation in the disputed territories.

“And the second option is for the claimants to consider subjecting the nine-dash line to validation in accordance with UNCLOS,” he said.

Last week, Southeast Asian and Chinese officials meeting in Indonesia agreed on a set of non-binding guidelines for implementing the 2002 Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea.

That could eventually lead to a binding code of conduct for handling disputes in the region. A Chinese Foreign Ministry official at the ASEAN meeting said it was an “important milestone” for cooperation. But the Philippines says the agreement has no enforcement mechnanism.

Despite the ongoing differences, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton commended both sides for forging the first step.

On Saturday, a high ranking U.S. official who attended the forum told reporters almost all of the claimants’ grievances were “exaggerated.” But the official did not elaborate.