THE Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) is not the venue to resolve sovereignty claims over the South China Sea, the secretary general of the 10-nation bloc has reiterated.
Asean however is the venue to regulate the conduct of all parties in the territorial dispute, Asean Secretary General Le Luong Minh told The Manila Times.
“We have to be able to separate, to expect these sovereignty claims. I mean we have only four Asean countries who are claimants –Vietnam, Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia,” Minh said in an interview on Sunday at the sidelines of the 31st Asean Summit being hosted by Manila.
Minh pointed out that the South China Sea issue is just one aspect of the relations between Asean and China, which he said is governed by the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, signed by the 10 Asean members and China in 2002.
“That governs not only Asean but also China’s activities and behavior in South China Sea,” the Vietnamese diplomat said.
There is no Asean position on the sovereignty claims, Minh pointed out.
“We don’t require, we don’t even ask, we don’t request, other Asean countries to have a position with regards to the sovereignty claims of the claimants,” he said.
“But the other aspect is when Asean has a common position for the maintenance of peace and stability in the region. And this position is reflected in the [agreement]signed in 2002,” he added.
Minh nevertheless acknowledged the need for a new code of conduct in the disputed waters given recent “incidents.”
This will “prevent and manage the incidents that have been taken place over the recent years that has eroded the trust and confidence among the parties,” he said.
Manila attempted to resolve its claim in 2013 when the government of President Benigno Aquino 3rd haled Beijing to a UN-backed arbitration tribunal in The Hague, which ruled in favor of the Philippines in July 2016.
On Sunday, President Rodrigo Duterte, who has adopted a conciliatory stance with Beijing, said he could not enforce the arbitral ruling because China won’t recognize it.
China continues to build structures in the disputed waters, for instance airstrips on Fiery Cross, Subi and Mischief Reefs.
‘No surprise moves’
Asean announced the start of negotiations with China for the new code of conduct on Monday, after a summit with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang.
Foreign Affairs Spokesman Robespierre Bolivar said negotiations would likely take place in 2018, and would be based on a framework adopted during the Asean Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Manila last August.
A draft Asean-China summit statement said leaders emphasized the importance of cooperation in maintaining peace, stability and freedom of navigation in and over-flight over the disputed waters, in accordance with international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
The leaders also reiterated their commitment to fully and effectively implement the 2002 declaration, which would basically prevent all claimant countries from occupying any new feature in the contested waters.
President Duterte’s spokesman, Harry Roque, told reporters Asean wanted predictability in the South China Sea, which Manila calls West Philippine Sea.
“It (Asean) just wants to avoid mistaken responses to actions, achieve predictability by adopting a code of conduct,” Roque said in a news conference when asked if Asean had expressed concerns over China’s increasing buildup of artificial islands in South China Sea.
China has assured Duterte that it would not go to war over the South China Sea dispute, Roque said.
“During their bilateral meeting [two days ago in Vietnam], [Chinese] President Xi [Jinping] assured us that they are not ready to go to war with anyone,” Roque said.
“They (China) are not going to use military forces to block freedom of navigation in the South China Sea,” he added.
WITH LLANESCA T. PANTI AND JEFFERSON ANTIPORDA