Asean declaration skirts China issue

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SOUTHEAST Asian leaders are likely to avoid any official mention at their Manila summit this week of an arbitration ruling that had nullified China’s massive claims on the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), according to a draft of their final declaration.

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But the draft also expresses “serious concerns” over the “escalation of activities” in the disputed waters, which Southeast Asian countries fear could destabilize the region.

LAST INSTRUCTIONS National Capital Region Police Office chief Oscar Albayalde gives final instructions to Manila policemen who will be part of the security force to guard delegates to the Association of Southeast Asian Summit. PHOTO BY RENE H. DILAN

The draft, obtained on Wednesday by reporters, is being fine-tuned by senior officials for the leaders to approve during the 30th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) Summit this week in Manila.

The final version is to be released on Saturday, but major points including those concerning the South China Sea are expected to remain largely unchanged.

“We shared the serious concern expressed by some Leaders over recent developments and escalation of activities in the area which may further raise tensions and erode trust and confidence in the region,” the draft statement said.

“We reaffirmed the importance of enhancing mutual trust and confidence, exercising self-restraint in the conduct of activities, avoiding actions that may further complicate the situation, and pursuing peaceful resolution of disputes, including through full respect for legal and diplomatic processes, without resorting to the threat or use of force, in accordance with the universally recognized principles of international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos),” it added.

Issue of concern

The Department of Foreign Affairs on Wednesday maintained that the South China Sea remains to be an issue of concern but the government expects discussions of Asean leaders to be on a positive tone.

DFA spokesperson Robespierre Bolivar said that President Rodrigo Duterte, as chairman of Asean, plays a bigger role in steering discussions.

“Of course he can raise more issues, speak more. But definitely it is one of our interests as a country, definitely the president will speak on this,” Bolivar said.

‘Progress’ in code of conduct

The Philippines is hosting this year’s Asean summit, as Duterte seeks closer ties with China while distancing the country from the United States, Beijing’s rival for influence in the Pacific.

Asean leaders, according to the draft, will also reaffirm “the importance of freedom of navigation in and over-flight over the South China Sea.”

They will also underscore “the importance of the full and effective implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) in its entirety.”

“We were pleased with the progress to complete a framework of the Code of Conduct (COC), in order to facilitate the early adoption of the COC within the Asean-China process,” the regional bloc’s 10 leaders will say.

The Asean member-states are Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore,
Thailand and Vietnam. Four of Asean members – Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines, and Vietnam – are claiming parts of the disputed island, while China and Taiwan are claiming most of its features.

In a landmark ruling in July last year, a United Nations-backed arbitration tribunal invalidated China’s expansive claims, including in areas where Beijing had reclaimed islands, and admonished China for blocking Filipino fishermen at Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal, a traditional fishing ground.

China refuses to recognize the July 12, 2016 ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, Netherlands.

The case was filed by Duterte’s predecessor Benigno Aquino 3rd, who challenged Beijing through legal and diplomatic avenues including Asean events. This led to a sharp deterioration in bilateral relations.

Duterte, who assumed the presidency shortly before the ruling was issued, has chosen to pursue friendly ties with China to try to win billions of dollars’ worth of trade and aid.

As part of that, he has said he will not use the ruling to pressure China.

The draft follows a similar statement at an Asean summit in Laos last year when intensive Chinese lobbying helped to ensure there was no mention of the ruling.

Philippine diplomats have said the “framework” code of conduct for South China Sea might be completed by June, with China expressing optimism about the talks.

But negotiations for an actual code have already taken 15 years, after Asean and China adopted a non-binding agreement in 2002 to discourage hostile acts.

Meanwhile, China has built its artificial islands, which are capable of serving as military bases.

“What’s the point of having a code of conduct if China has successfully militarized the South China Sea?” Renato de Castro, international studies professor at Manila’s De La Salle University, told AFP.

With Jefferson Antiporda and AFP

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