Australia, Japan, U.S. to China and PH: Abide by arbitral ruling on SCS

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, August 7) — Australia, Japan, and the United States urged China and the Philippines on Monday to abide by the arbitral tribunal ruling on disputed islands in the South China Sea.

The statement was a result of the Trilateral Strategic Dialogue Ministerial Meeting, which gathered Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono, and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

A joint statement released later that day "called on China and the Philippines to abide by the Arbitral Tribunal's 2016 Award in the Philippines-China arbitration, as it is final and legally binding on both parties."

"The ministers noted the significance of the UNCLOS dispute settlement regime and the Tribunal's decision in discussions among parties in their efforts to peacefully resolve their maritime disputes in the (South China Sea)," it added.

The stand from the Trilateral Strategic Dialogue also echoes its 2016 statement, which likewise named both parties to abide by the ruling.

The arbitral tribunal ruling, which was released in July 12 last year, favored the Philippines' claim over disputed islands in the South China Sea. However, China has refused to acknowledge the ruling.

Under President Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines has shifted to warmer relations with China.

Ahead of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Summit (ASEAN) in April, Duterte said, "We will skip -  I will skip the arbitral ruling. It is not an issue here in the ASEAN... It's only between China and the Philippines."

The ruling also was not raised during bilateral talks with the eastern giant last May 19. Philippine ambassador to China Chito Sta. Romana, who led the delegation, said that not raising the issue was part of Duterte's strategy.

Foreign Affairs spokesperson Robespierre Bolivar on Monday also referred to Duterte's statements on the ruling.

"The President has stated on many occasions that the Philippines will respect the arbitral tribunal and will raise it with relevant sides at the proper time. So I don't see any disagreement between the Philippine position and the statement of U.S., Japan, and Australia," said Bolivar.

He added that the joint statement of the Trilateral Strategic Dialogue "contains the same principles that ASEAN adheres to, as reflected in the JointCommuniqué."

The Communiqué, which was released late on Sunday, is a document that reflects the consensus of the ministers on issues concerning ASEAN. However, while it denounced activities like land reclamation in disputed waters, it did not specifically mention the arbitral ruling.

Related: ASEAN ministers denounce land reclamation, militarization in South China Sea

Australia, Japan, and the U.S. also reiterated its urge for claimants to "refrain from land reclamation, construction of outposts, militarization of disputed features, and undertaking unilateral actions that cause permanent physical change to the marine environment in areas pending delimitation."

China has built structures over some of the disputed islands, most recently a cinema on Woody Island, one of the Paracel Islands that is also claimed by Vietnam.

It also built military structures on the Spratly Island chain, including in Fiery Cross, Mischief Reef, and Subi Reef.

The ministers of the Trilateral Strategic Dialogue also called on ASEAN member states "to fully and effectively implement" the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct (DOC) of Parties in the South China Sea.

The DOC is a document that was aimed at facilitating peaceful conduct in the disputed waters. However, ASEAN Secretary General Lê Lýõng Minh believes the arrangement failed to prevent actions that "further escalated tension and complicated the dispute."

Related: ASEAN to push for legally binding South China Sea code of conduct 

ASEAN ministers are set to start on a new Code of Conduct, the framework for which was adopted on Sunday.

The Trilateral Strategic Dialogue also acknowledged the adoption and maintained that the new code should be legally binding, which entails the parties which violate the code will be held accountable for their actions.

"The ministers further urged ASEAN member states and China to ensure that the COC be finalized in a timely manner, and that it be legally binding, meaningful, effective, and consistent with international law," the joint statement read.

Minh revealed to CNN Philippines on Saturday that ASEAN will also push for the document to be legally binding, unlike the DOC.

CNN Philippines' Correspondent JC Gotinga contributed to this report.