The Philippines urged Beijing today to respect an international tribunal's ruling that rejected Chinese claims to most of the South China Sea, escalating a row that has raised the prospect of conflict.
China reacted furiously to the verdict by a UN-back tribunal on Tuesday, insisting it will ignore the decision while warning its rivals too much pressure on the issue could turn the resource-rich and strategically vital waterway into a "cradle of war".
Dispute to remain talking point during at ASEM
The Philippines, which launched the legal challenge, had initially refrained from asking China to abide by the ruling. This followed President Rodrigo Duterte`s directive to achieve a "soft landing" with the Philippines' much more powerful Asian neighbour.
But Manila hardened its stance today with a statement detailing Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay's priorities when he attends an Asia-Europe summit, known as ASEM, in Mongolia this week along with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang.
"Secretary Yasay will discuss within the context of ASEM's agenda the Philippines' peaceful and rules-based approach on the South China Sea and the need for parties to respect the recent decision," the foreign affairs department said in a statement.
Even just raising the issue at the two-day summit starting on Friday will anger China, which has long bridled at Philippine efforts to have the dispute discussed at multilateral events.
Chinese assistant foreign minister Kong Xuanyou insisted on Monday the ASEM summit was "not an appropriate venue" to discuss the South China Sea.
But China appears to be in the minority -- Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also said today as he left for Mongolia that he wanted to discuss the South China Sea at the summit.
China claims nearly all of the sea -- which is of immense military importance and through which about $5 trillion worth of shipping trade passes annually -- even waters approaching the coasts of the Philippines and other Southeast Asian nations.
US, China call on China to respect Hague ruling
China justifies its claims by saying it was the first to have discovered, named and exploited the sea, and outlines its territory using a vague map made up of nine dashes that emerged in the 1940s.
However the tribunal, in The Hague, ruled China's claimed historic rights to resources within the nine-dash map had no legal basis.
It also declared that China had acted unlawfully by violating the Philippines` sovereign rights within its exclusive economic zone -- waters extending 200 nautical miles from the Filipino coast.
China had done so by interfering with Philippine fishing and petroleum exploration within the exclusive zone, as well as by building artificial islands there.
China has in recent years undertaken giant land reclamation works in the Spratlys archipelago, one of the biggest island groups in the sea which partly falls within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone.
The United States and Australia were among Philippine allies this week to call on China to respect the ruling.
China mulling over introducing air defence zone over the sea
But the Chinese government and state media instead unleashed a tirade of vitriol against the tribunal, and vowed never to give up its claims to the sea.
"Do not turn the South China Sea into a cradle of war," vice foreign minister Liu Zhenmin told reporters in Beijing on Wednesday in a warning to rivals.
He also said China may introduce an air defence zone over the sea, which would give its military authority over foreign aircraft, depending on the "threat" level.
The English-language China Daily said: "Beijing certainly should, and has to, ready itself for worst-case scenarios, including potential military collisions".
China and the United States had already deployed significant naval firepower in the sea ahead of the verdict.
Taiwan, which has a very similar claim to the waters as China, sent a warship into the waters on Wednesday to protect its interests.
The Philippines filed the legal challenge against China in 2013 under Duterte`s predecessor, Benigno Aquino. Relations between Beijing and Manila plummeted over the row.
Duterte, who took office on June 30, has said he wants better relations with China and to attract Chinese investment for major infrastructure projects.
Unlike Aquino, Duterte has said he wants to talk directly with China over the issue. Beijing also wants to negotiate, but at the same time insists it will never concede on sovereignty.