U.S.: South China Sea doesn't belong to any nation

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President Rodrigo Duterte (third from the left) and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence (fifth from the left) both attended the Association of the Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)-U.S. Summit in Singapore on Thursday.

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, November 16) — Following President Rodrigo Duterte's controversial statement that China is "already in possession" of some disputed areas in the South China Sea, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said the global waterway is not owned by anyone.

"The South China Sea doesn't belong to any one nation, and you can be sure: The United States will continue to sail and fly wherever international law allows and our national interests demand," Pence said in a tweet Friday.

 

Duterte and Pence both attended the Association of the Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)-U.S. Summit in Singapore on Thursday.

Prior to the meeting, Duterte in a chance interview with reporters, urged the U.S. and other countries to stop provoking China with military activities.

"China is there. That's the reality. And America and everybody should realize that they are there. So if you just keep on creating little friction, one day a bad miscalculation can turn things - Murphy's Law. If anything can go wrong, it will go wrong," Duterte warned. "I said China is already in possession. It's now in their hands. So why do you have to create frictions - strong military activity that will prompt a response from China?" he added.

READ: Duterte: South China Sea is now in China's hands, why create friction?  

In his speech during the summit, Pence said, "We all agree that empire and aggression have no place in the Indo-Pacific," without mentioning  any country.

Although the U.S. is not a claimant country in the South China Sea, it conducts freedom-of-navigation operations in international waters around the disputed area and calls out China's alleged militarization in the region.

Experts correct Duterte

Maritime law expert Jay Batongbacal said Duterte's statements were "contrary to Philippine law and international law."

He said China only "illegally occupied" areas in the West Philippine Sea or parts of the South China Sea that lie within the country's 200-mile exclusive economic zone.

This, as the East Asian giant refuses to recognize the July 2016 ruling of an international arbitral tribunal recognizing Philippines' claims in the West Philippine Sea. China still claims virtually the entire South China Sea, parts of which are contested by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei - all ASEAN members - and Taiwan.

Acting Chief Justice Antonio Carpio, who was part of the Philippine delegation to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague that argued for and won the country's case against China, also corrected Duterte's statement on Friday.

"China is in physical possession of the entire Paracels, seven geologic features in the Spratlys, and Scarborough Shoal. These geologic features and their territorial seas constitute less than 8 percent of the total area of the South China Sea. Factually, China is not in possession of the South China Sea," Carpio clarified in a lecture at a convention.

READ: Carpio to Duterte: China not in possession of South China Sea  

Duterte, who has been criticized for his soft stance on the maritime row with China, said he will bring up the arbitral ruling with Beijing during his term, which ends 2022.

CNN Philippines' Makio Popioco contributed to this report.