A group of Filipino lawmakers flew Wednesday to a Philippine-occupied island in the disputed South China Sea to assert their country's claim to the potentially oil-rich region in defiance of China's protest that the visit threatens regional stability.
Even though the daylong visit upset China, which has been trading accusations with the Philippines and Vietnam over recent territorial spats in some of the world's busiest sea lanes, a senior Chinese diplomat at a meeting of Asian security officials in Bali, Indonesia, said that his country has agreed to draft guidelines for behavior in the disputed region with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Chinese diplomat Liu Zhenmin called it a "milestone document." Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario, however, said that with no teeth, even such guidelines would be meaningless and that the Philippines still intends to bring the dispute to an international tribunal.
"So we are signing an agreement with China (and) it's supposed to be a code of conduct, but China is saying on the other hand that they own everything," he told reporters, adding that the "necessary elements to make the guidelines succeed are still incomplete."
For years, Beijing has resisted calls for a binding code of conduct that would require disputes in the South China Sea to be solved peacefully and without threats of violence.
Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam also have conflicting territorial claims in the Spratly Islands, which are believed to be rich in oil and natural gas. In recent months, the Philippines and Vietnam have charged that Chinese vessels were disrupting their energy exploration and sought the backing of the U.S., which said it wants to keep international maritime traffic free from interference.
China, which claims the entire South China Sea, acknowledges some of the incidents took place in what it said were its waters.
On Wednesday, dozens of Filipino troops and sunburned villagers welcomed the four-member congressional delegation on Pag-asa Island. Although tiny and a large part of it made up of a single gravel airstrip, the island is the biggest in a cluster that the Philippines claims as it own and calls Kalayaan group of islands.
"This is a historic moment for the congressional delegation. This is Philippine territory," Rep. Walden Bello told a small crowd of residents, government officials and troops who greeted him in the intense tropical heat.
Bello carried two new Philippine flags for the island. He and the others sang their national anthem during a flag-raising ceremony in front of a small one-story town hall on the 91-acre (37-hectare) island, which also has a military camp and a small civilian community of about 60 people.
Pag-asa, internationally called Tithu Island, lies in the South China Sea about 300 miles (480 kilometers) west of the western Philippine province of Palawan. Kalayaan municipality was established in 1978.
Chinese Embassy spokesman Ethan Sun said Tuesday that China would relay its "great concern" to the Philippine government over the lawmakers' trip. He said it goes against the spirit of a 2002 accord between China and ASEAN, which is nonbinding.
The trip "serves no purpose but to undermine peace and stability in the region and sabotage China-Philippine relationship," Sun said in a statement.
Philippine presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said Wednesday the lawmakers "were not doing anything in violation of international law" in visiting a Philippine territory.
Bello said that the trip, which his party calls a "sovereignty mission," aims at peacefully asserting the Philippines' claim to Pag-asa and surrounding territory.
"We come in peace," he said in a speech on the island. "We support a diplomatic solution, but let there be no doubt in anybody's mind, in any foreign power's mind that if they dare to eject us from Pag-asa, if they dare to eject us from our rightful territories, Filipinos will not take that sitting down. Filipinos are born to resist aggression. Filipinos are willing to die for their soil."
Despite diplomatic progress at the Bali meeting, del Rosario said Manila had told Beijing it plans to take the territorial dispute to a U.N. tribunal to resolve the conflicting claims peacefully.
China last week rejected the Philippine proposal and reiterated its long-held position to solve its disputes through bilateral negotiations with Manila and the other claimants.
Associated Press writers Oliver Teves in Manila and Niniek Karmini in Bali, Indonesia, contributed to this report.