PRESIDENT Benigno Aquino III told an Asia-Pacific summit on Sunday that “the world is watching” whether China would behave as a responsible power in the simmering standoff over maritime territory.
Aquino kept up a drumbeat of growing criticism of China’s expansion of tiny atolls into fully fledged islands, as leaders including Chinese Premier Li Keqiang met in Malaysia.
The issue has increasingly loomed over the regional diplomatic and security outlook, with China accused of upsetting the status quo by moving to enhance its presence in the South China Sea.
“We are hopeful that China would honor its word and respect the rule of law,” Aquino said, according to a copy of his address to the 18-country East Asia Summit in Kuala Lumpur.
Aquino’s comment referred specifically to a dispute with China over maritime territory, which Manila is bringing before an international court.
“The world is watching and expects no less from a responsible global leader,” Aquino said.
Beijing has vowed not to take part in the case, saying the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague has no jurisdiction over a matter concerning Chinese sovereignty.
Heads of government from 18 countries including the United States, China, India, Russia, Japan and nations in Southeast Asia are meeting for the annual East Asia summit, this year hosted by Malaysia.
A Philippine diplomat confirmed Aquino made the comments in the closed-door meeting.
The Kuala Lumpur diplomatic and political meetings follow a trade-related forum in Manila earlier in the week that included many of the same leaders.
The maritime issue has become the stage for a big-power confrontation between China and the United States, which warns that Beijing’s actions could threaten freedom of navigation.
US President Barack Obama, who also attended both summits this week, has called on China to halt its land reclamation.
China has declared ownership of virtually all of the South China Sea, conflicting with the various claims of Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Brunei.
The Philippines has been the most vocal in challenging China.
Aquino said Beijing’s island reclamation was “in total disregard of international law” and its assertiveness had “come to a point wherein we are now no longer allowed to enter areas within our Exclusive Economic Zone.”
Manila insists the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which the Philippines and China have both ratified, should be used to settle the bitter row.
“The great equalizer is the rule of law. Under the rule of law, right prevails over might,” he told his fellow leaders.
The annual season of summitry has so far been dominated by expressions of concern and calls for action over the extremist attacks in Paris and Mali, and bombings in Lebanon.
Sunday’s gathering brings China to the same table as rival claimants to the South China Sea, plus Obama.
China’s island-building is aimed at reinforcing its toehold in the strategic sea but has sparked concern of a Chinese territorial grab.
Obama met Saturday with counterparts from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and they issued a joint statement stressing the need to maintain freedom of navigation and over-flight rights in the South China Sea.
Obama also backed Asean’s calls for progress with China on agreeing on a code of conduct at sea to prevent conflict.
China has been accused of dragging its feet on the code—which could limit its freedom of action at sea—while it works to turn its disputed claims into a fait accomplit.
“For the sake of regional stability, claimants should halt reclamation, new construction, and militarization of disputed areas,” Obama said Saturday.
Washington has repeatedly warned that traffic through the South China Sea, a key conduit for world trade, could be threatened by China’s moves.
It recently sent US naval vessels to the region to stress the right to free passage, a move that angered Beijing.
China insists on sovereignty over virtually all the resource-endowed South China Sea, which is also claimed in part by a handful of other countries.
Southeast Asian foreign ministers who met Friday in Kuala Lumpur issued a joint statement saying they were “seriously concerned” over the land reclamation.
Malacañang said Sunday the Philippines is confident it will win its arbitration case in the Arbitral Tribunal of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague filed against China over territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
“We have anticipated all angles and, again, are we confident? Yes, we are confident that we can present a very good case before the arbitral tribunal, and we certainly hope that the jurors will see it our way,” said Edwin Lacierda, the President’s spokesman, during an interview over state-run radio station dzRB.
“You know, we studied the case. Before we filed it, we studied already the case. We studied our claims in the light of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea,” Lacierda said.
“We have seen the initial response of the tribunal with respect to the issue of jurisdiction. Our lawyers have prepared for this. We are now in the phase where we are going to discuss the merits of the petition itself. Our lawyers have studied it very thoroughly from all angles,” Lacierda said.
Also on Sunday, the Armed Forces said it saw nothing wrong with the plan of retired Marine Capt. Nicanor Faeldon to sail to the Kalayaan Island Group with at least 10,000 youth volunteers by Nov. 30.
AFP spokesman Col. Restituto Padilla said the proposed caravan “Kalayaan Atin Ito” only shows the patriotic fervor of the volunteers who have decided to join the former Marine officer.
He also said that the sailing has no implication on the ongoing territorial dispute between the country and China over some areas of the West Philippine Sea.
“Demonstration of patriotism is not prohibited. We are thankful that some of our citizenry are showing their patriotic fervor and civic-mindedness. It goes to show that a lot of our youth are still concerned with events ongoing in the country,” Padilla said in Filipino.
“And publicly, we are telling them, [that] we are proud of your expression of your patriotic fervor, and we are glad we have so many youth who are like this, so morally we support them,” he added.
But the AFP spokesperson said that he is unaware on whether the military has any commitment to help the group in their voyage.