MANILA, Philippines (AP) — The Philippines' top diplomat, who was behind a bold government move to challenge the validity of China's vast territorial claims in the South China Sea at an international tribunal, has resigned due to health reasons, officials said Monday.
President Benigno Aquino III has accepted Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario's resignation, which will take effect on March 7, presidential spokesman Herminio Coloma Jr. said.
The U.S.-educated del Rosario, 76, has been an outspoken critic among the foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations of China's increasingly assertive stance in the disputed waters.
Four governments in the 10-nation bloc — Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam — have been locked in a territorial conflict with China in the South China Sea. Taiwan is also involved in the disputes, which escalated when China recently transformed seven disputed reefs into islands that can be used to project its military might.
In January 2013, del Rosario spearheaded the filing by the Philippine government of a complaint challenging the validity of China's sprawling territorial claims under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas before an international arbitration tribunal. China has refused to join the arbitration, which has been backed by Western and Asian governments as a rules-based approach to resolve the long-simmering conflict.
Despite the rift, del Rosario has called on Beijing and Manila to continue normal economic ties.
Coloma did not describe the reason for the resignation of del Rosario, who served previously as Philippine ambassador to Washington. Two senior Filipino diplomats, however, said del Rosario has been suffering from a spinal problem and a recently detected heart ailment that caused doctors to implant a pacemaker.
Del Rosario has recommended that one of his undersecretaries, Laura del Rosario, succeed him, the diplomats said. Laura del Rosario oversaw Manila's hosting of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum that drew world leaders in November. The two are not related.
The diplomats spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media about del Rosario's health concerns.
Known as a hands-on and hard-working diplomat, del Rosario impressed many when he flew to Libya during civil strife to oversee the repatriation of Filipino workers just days after he was appointed foreign secretary in 2011. He later recounted how he prayed quietly as his convoy that rescued Filipino workers passed near a Libyan area where gunshots rang out.
Since then, he has traveled to almost 50 countries "for the purpose of negotiating and asserting the rightful place of the Philippines in the international community," according to the Depart of Foreign Affairs.