Kerry: US avoiding maritime conflict

US SECRETARY of State John Kerry on Wednesday said Washington wants to avoid confrontation in the South China Sea, after meeting with Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay to discuss the Philippines' victory over China before the Permanent Arbitration Court (PAC) over conflicting territorial claims.

"The decision itself is a binding decision but we're not trying to create a confrontation. We are trying to create a solution mindful of the rights of people established under the law," Kerry said.

The PAC based in The Hague this month ruled that China's claim to most of the strategic waterway was inconsistent with international law. The decision angered Beijing, which vowed to ignore the ruling.

But Kerry said the United States saw an opportunity for claimants to peacefully resolve the row.

"We hope to see a process that will narrow the geographic scope of the maritime disputes, set standards for behavior in contested areas, lead to mutually acceptable solutions, perhaps even a series of confidence-building steps," he said.

Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also have claims to the South China Sea, a vital waterway through which $5 trillion in annual trade passes. It is also believed to sit atop vast reserves of oil and gas.

Kerry, who arrived in Manila on Tuesday after attending a regional summit in Laos, met with President Rodrigo Duterte after Yasay.

On Tuesday, Kerry said he would encourage Duterte, who assumed office on June 30, to engage in dialogue and "turn the page" with China.

Kerry was also expected to raise with Duterte US concerns about human rights and the rule of law.

"The Philippines has an unhappy history of extrajudicial killings and violence [against] journalists and others," a US official told reporters traveling with the secretary.

"We hope to hear more from President Duterte about ... protecting human rights [and] maintaining the rule of law."

Duterte has launched a bloody war on crime, urging law enforcers, communist rebels and even the public to kill criminals.

Since he took office, police reported over 200 deaths while media tallies have said more than 300 have died, including suspected extrajudicial killings.

Even before he assumed the presidency, Duterte drew criticism from United Nations chief Ban Ki-Moon and human rights advocates for his calls to kill criminals, as well as comments stating that corrupt journalists deserved to die.

At a joint conference, Yasay played down the failure of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to issue a communique that mentioned the UN tribunal's decision during the last foreign ministers' meeting in Laos.

The failure of Asean to issue a stronger joint communique was widely seen as a diplomatic victory for Beijing, which had pressed its ally, Cambodia, to reject a stronger draft statement that identified China.

But Yasay disagreed.

"I want to dispel reports that China came out victorious in the Asean meeting because we precisely agreed to not mentioning the arbitral award," Yasay said, noting that the arbitral award was between the Philippines and China.

Yasay said that the landmark July 12 Award is binding and upholds the primacy of international law as the cornerstone of a rules-based regional and international order covering all nations, large and small. The rule of law provides a good basis for a rules-based approach for resolving the South China Sea disputes, he said.

Kerry, on the other hand, reiterated the call against provocations in the disputed waters and for respect for freedom of navigation, a key aspect of his agenda for his visit to Manila.

"It's impossible for it to be irrelevant. It's legally binding. And it's obviously a decision of a court that's recognized under international law. It has to be part of the calculation," Kerry said.

Kerry reiterated the US call to all nations with competing claims in the South China Sea to respect the ruling of the PCA.

"The rights of all countries under the law should always be respected. That is why international law is valued. At the same time and I want to be equally clear about this, we urge all the claimants to exercise restraint and to work to reduce tensions," he said.

The US official said that the US hope for a diplomatic solution without coercion or the use and threat of force in the South China Sea, but without making reference to a particular claimant country.

Kerry said he was confident that the Philippines, a strong ally of US, would take its own negotiating position and decide how best to proceed forward.

"While the United States is not a claimant and the US does not take a position on the competing claims in the South China Sea, we do take a strong position on protecting the rights, the freedoms, the lawful uses of air and sea space as defined by international law. We take a strong position in support for the rule of law," Kerry said during the press conference.

On Wednesday, the militant League of Filipino Students (LFS) marched to the US Embassy to protest Kerry's visit as well as the Supreme Court's decision to uphold the constitutionality of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement.

LFS national spokesperson JP Rosos said the timing of the Court decision was highly suspicious, coming as it did just before Kerry's visit.

Source: The Standard