BEIJING: The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and China took a step toward easing tensions in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), agreeing on Thursday to a framework or outline for a “code of conduct” to prevent incidents in the disputed waters.
The framework, which was agreed upon during a meeting of senior officials from Asean and China in the southwestern Chinese province of Guizhou, sets the parameters for a final, more detailed agreement yet to come.
A draft of the text obtained by Agence France-Presse describes the envisioned agreement as “a set of norms to guide the conduct of parties and promote maritime cooperation in the South China Sea,” adding that it is “not an instrument to settle territorial disputes.”
The Philippines, the Asean chairman this year, welcomed the finalization of the draft framework and noted that it was completed ahead of the mid-2017 goal set by Asean leaders and China.
“The draft framework will be presented to the Foreign Ministers of Asean and China at their Post-Ministerial Conference in Manila in August 2017 for their consideration,” the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said in a statement on Friday.
“The Philippines reaffirms its commitment to working towards an effective Code of Conduct for the South China Sea,” the statement added.
Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano on Friday said the code of conduct on the West Philippine Sea should be binding to all Asean member-states and China, but admitted that it would be difficult to force everyone to comply as there is no court before which disputes may be raised.
“Many, many countries wanted it to be legally binding. But I’m saying let’s start with it being a binding, gentlemen’s agreement. We have community of nations which signed,” Cayetano told reporters.
Negotiations for an actual code have already taken 15 years.
The 10-member Asean and China adopted a non-binding “declaration of conduct” in 2002 to discourage hostile acts. All sides agreed not to use threats or force to assert claims.
But China refused to turn it into a legally binding code of conduct, using the intervening time to build its artificial islands.
Beijing claims nearly all of the South China Sea, despite partial counter-claims from Taiwan and several Asean members including the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, and Vietnam.
Filipino and Chinese officials also held consultations on their maritime dispute over the West Philippine Sea for the first time, and vowed to honor international law.
“[B]oth sides exchanged views on the importance of addressing concerns in the South China Sea and handling incidents and disputes in the South China Sea in an appropriate manner,” Manila and Beijing said in a joint statement on Friday.
It did not mention Manila’s victory last year before a United Nations-backed arbitration court, which ruled that China’s claims on the disputed waters did not have legal basis.
The two sides upheld an October 2016 joint statement during President Rodrigo Duterte’s visit to Beijing, “where both sides reaffirmed the importance of maintaining and promoting peace and stability, freedom of navigation in and over-flight above the South China Sea…”
Friday’s statement reiterated that the two countries will address their territorial and jurisdictional disputes “by peaceful means, without resorting to the threat or use of force, through friendly consultations and negotiations by sovereign states directly concerned, in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law, including the Charter of the United Nations and the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.”
Officials agreed to meet anew in Manila later this year.
Duterte: ‘China threatened war’
President Duterte on Friday claimed China threatened to go to war over the maritime dispute if the Philippines insisted on its claims.
“If it’s yours, well that is your view, but my view is that I can drill the oil if there is some inside the bowels of the earth, because it is ours,” Duterte said in remarks in Davao City, recalling a conversation with Chinese officials without specifying when it took place.
“They answered: ‘Well, we are friends. We do not want to quarrel with you. We would want to maintain the present warm relationship. But if you force the issue, we will go to war,’” Duterte said.
AFP, PNA, CATHERINE S. VALENTE AND JAIME R. PILAPIL