President Benigno Aquino III on Monday night maintained that the United States should have a role in maintaining peace and stability in the disputed West Philippine Sea as it has interests there.

Although he said he is aware that the U.S. does not take sides in the disputes, Aquino said Washington has “a strategic stake in the freedom of navigation, unimpeded commerce, and the maintenance of peace and stability in the South China Sea.”

He said the Southeast Asian region is very diverse and its harmony can easily be disrupted by sheer political, military or economic might.

“Imbalance, as we know, may lead to instability,” said Aquino, who was in Cambodia for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit.

U.S. pawn?

A leading British scholar, Martin Jacques, had earlier advised the Philippine government against getting itself heavily committed to the American position regarding the territorial dispute.

Noting the projection that the Chinese economy will be bigger than the American economy by 2016, he said it is likely that China — one of the claimants in the West Philippine Sea — will replace the U.S. as the dominant power in the world.

“The Americans are playing their own game in this region because they’ve got a much bigger relationship with China globally. And so it’s very important that the Philippines doesn’t find itself as a sort of American pawn in this game, and it doesn’t in any way endanger its long-term strategic relationship with China because this is going to be their relationship in the future,” said Jacques, author of the best-selling book “When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order.”

China has opposed any U.S. participation in settling the dispute.

Special dimension

But Aquino said the U.S., as the world’s biggest economy, should have a say in what goes in a body of water where 50,000 ships traverse annually. “The more parties who agree to the solution leads to a more stable environment,” he said.

“In this regard, the Philippines firmly believes that territorial and maritime disputes should be settled peacefully and in accordance with the rule of law,” Aquino said. “We continue to support the further inclusion of economies active in the region in these discussions.”

He said America’s rebalancing towards the Asian region adds a “special dimension” to regional discussions on issues with wider political and economic implications. “It is especially vital to have the world’s largest national economy involved in the discussions considering the interconnectedness of our current milieu.”

Aquino also said he is happy that ASEAN leaders are finally agreeing that negotiations for Code of Conduct be formalized, when it was very difficult before to discuss the territorial dispute, which involves the Philippines, China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei.

Benefit of the doubt

Aquino, meanwhile, said he is giving Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen the benefit of the doubt for saying during the closing of the ASEAN-Japan summit that there was a consensus among ASEAN leaders not to internationalize the South China Sea issue.

He said Hun Sen allowed him to voice his objections and even apologized for not immediately seeing him raise his hand.

“Malaya naman tayong pinasalita ng gusto nating sabihin. Palagay ko wala tayong dapat ireklamo,” he said.

The current ASEAN chair, Cambodia claimed that all 10 members of the bloc had agreed at a leaders’ summit Sunday not to “internationalize” their disputes over the West Philippine Sea — a deal that would have favored China, which has long insisted that countries such as the Philippines should not seek support from the U.S.