UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon made a rare intervention yesterday in the deepening South China Sea sovereignty dispute, urging an "amicable" settlement but offering assistance if need be.
Ban's comments came hours after the Philippines launched an unprecedented move to force China to a UN arbitration panel over the legality of its nine-dash line - the basis for Beijing's claim to virtually the entire South China Sea.
Ban said he had been following the dispute carefully. "It is important for those countries in the region to resolve all these issues through dialogue in a peaceful and amicable way," he said.
The UN was ready "to provide technical and professional assistance, but primarily all these issues should be resolved by the parties concerned".
Diplomats noted that his remarks appeared carefully calibrated to avoid taking sides while dignifying the arbitration process under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
UNCLOS carries a unique provision allowing a state to launch a dispute settlement panel without the consent of its rival - something the Philippines is doing against China, which has long demanded one-on-one talks with rival claimants to the South China Sea and opposed steps to "internationalise" the issue.
Tensions flared last year over the disputed Scarborough Shoal, known as Huangyan Island in Chinese, and Chinese ships are now stationed in the area over the Philippines' objections.
The outcome of such a panel - if it agrees to hear the Philippines case - would carry legal and moral weight, international lawyers say, but no enforcement steps.
Beijing has yet to respond directly to the Philippines' move; officials reiterated China's "indisputable sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea and its adjacent waters". Zhang Hua, a spokesman for China's embassy in Manila, said the disputes should be settled through one-on-one negotiations, while yesterday a Foreign Ministry spokesman denounced Manila's "illegal occupation" of islands there.
"We hope that the relevant country honours its promises, and ... does not take any action to complicate or expand the problem," he said.
The Philippines' move is being closely scrutinised within the region - coming as it does amid a protracted effort by the ten nations of Southeast Asia to tie China into a legally binding Code of Conduct to ease tensions over the sea.
Manila is bracing for a long and bruising fight, with officials noting it could take as long as four years to get a decision.
A Philippine Foreign Ministry statement made it clear that preparations were under way for possible diplomatic and economic punishment from China, its third-largest trading partner.
The statement said Manila was prepared to provide a "safety net" for any foreign workers affected, while playing down the threat of a serious dent to ties or even a military conflict.
"China is a friend," the statement said. "Arbitration is a peaceful and amicable process to settle a dispute among friends. We will continue to pursue an enhancement of our bilateral relations."
Some Chinese scholars have warned that the Philippines seems determined to harm those relations, and it was unlikely that China would accept the results of a tribunal to which it objected.
Agence France-Presse, Associated Press, Reuters