Antonio Carpio (left) points to an ancient map. Photo: Reuters
Antonio Carpio (left) points to an ancient map. Photo: Reuters

The Philippines’ provocative president, Rodrigo Duterte, was courting controversy again this week, asserting casually on the sidelines of the ASEAN summit in Singapore that China was already in possession of the entire South China Sea.

The contested waters are home to more than 250 land features, variously claimed and occupied by countries including China and the Philippines.

On Friday, Philippine Chief Justice Antonio Carpio corrected the record.

“Factually, China is not in possession of the South China Sea,” Carpio was quoted by ABS-CBN news as saying during a speech.

“About 25% of the South China Sea are high seas. Under UNCLOS, no state can possess or own the high seas, which belong to all mankind. Under UNCLOS, there is freedom of navigation and overflight in the high seas for all nations,” he said, referring to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

The territory that China does control accounts for “less than 8% of the total area of the South China Sea,” noted Carpio, who was one of the lawyers who represented Manila in the arbitration at The Hague challenging China’s South China Sea claims.

The back and forth between the two Philippine voices comes as member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are caught between the competing interests of the United States and China, a reality that Singaporean President Lee Hsien Loong articulated this week.

It is “very desirable” for the bloc of Southeast Asian nations to avoid picking sides, but it may be inevitable for countries to “have to choose one or the other,” he said.

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