On visit to Asia, US Secretary of State John Kerry offered support for a statement by ASEAN ministers that avoided pushing China on the Philippine's recent victory in arbitration court. Ana Santos reports from Manila.
Foreign ministers of the 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) met last week in Vientiane, Laos, where the bloc was expected to release a statement that would include mention of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) ruling earlier in July that rejected China's territorial claims in the South China Sea.
"As the leading organization in the region, with interests in the South China Sea, it would be strange if ASEAN didn't have a viewpoint," Derry Aman, the Indonesian Foreign Ministry's ASEAN dialogue partner and inter-regional cooperation director said in June.
But the statement that emerged did not touch on the arbitration ruling, due to a deadlock among the neighboring nations on how to address China's aggressive moves in the contested waters, considered one of the most important trade routes in the world.
Chinese ally Cambodia reportedly foiled moves by claimant-states to issue a more strongly worded statement against Chinese expansion. Chinese Foreign minister Wang Yi, on hand at the meeting, called the statement a victory.
Philippine Foreign Minister Perfecto Yasay said that he "vigorously pushed" for the inclusion of the arbitration ruling in a joint statement among the ASEAN nations, but insisted that its absence was not to be taken as a diplomatic win for China.
"We did not want to gloat about our victory with respect to the arbitration award," Yasay said. "We made a holding statement that was sober and restrained because we did not want to come out with any provocative statements that would only further heighten tensions."
"I knew you all wanted for us to say more, but you will understand that while the arbitration tribunal provided the legal basis for us to move forward on our issues with China to be resolved peacefully, that legal basis will now have to give way to diplomatic processes," he added
In a joint press conference earlier today, US Secretary of State John Kerry supported Yasay's position, calling the Philippine government's response "very responsible and very measured."
"Let us not focus on confrontation, but let us focus on solution," Kerry said. He arrived in the Philippines yesterday to visit the recently inaugurated president Rodrigo Duterte and engage in talks about their common interest in countering human trafficking, violent extremism and terrorism.
A 'lost opportunity'
Other groups openly expressed their frustration and called the ASEAN meeting "a lost opportunity."
"But if not the ASEAN, then what would be the forum to show our position of legal strength in defending our territorial and maritime rights?" asked Dindo Manhit, director of the Philippines-based Stratbase Albert del Rosario Institute.
Manhit agreed with the government's decision to enter into bilateral discussions with China but said that "it would be better to go into such a discussion with the support of our allies and the international community behind us."
"It's hard to say what the Philippines gained, but it is clear what the region lost: an opportunity to speak decisively against the clearly coercive diplomacy of its larger neighbor," Manhit added.
Just want to fish
But all of this is vague diplomatic rhetoric for fishermen like Efren Forones, 55, who has lived in the coastal community of Santa Lucia, Zambales all his life and has been fishing since he was 12 years old.
Zambales, some 220 kilometers east of the Scarborough Shoal, is the nearest landmass to the islands in the contested West Philippine Sea. Still, it takes fishermen about 15 hours to sail from Zambales to the shoal.
"I have lost interest in fishing. We can't fish anymore anyway," said Forones. Trouble started in 2012, he said, when Chinese naval ships prevented him and his small crew from fishing in the area.
A dwindling catch against rising costs of fuel have made fishing a losing proposition for Forones and others like him, who have for decades made a living off the rich fishing grounds in the shoal.
Forones was among those who rallied in front of the US Embassy when the arbitration case in favor of the Philippines was announced.
"We were happy when we won, but China was not happy - they were angry," said Forones who has still not gone out to sea after hearing from other fishermen that the Chinese coast guard was more aggressive in defending their territory since the ruling.
"I think we should fight for what is ours, but we can't do it alone. We need the help of our neighbors and other countries if we are to go against China. For us here, we just want to go fishing again," he said.