LEADERS of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) excluded the landmark arbitral ruling against Beijing in their draft summit statement on Saturday, but made a united stand against China’s militarization in the disputed West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
In their draft final declaration, Asean leaders raised strong concerns over Beijing’s construction of man-made islands in the South China Sea, as they reaffirmed the importance of maintaining peace, stability and security, as well as freedom of navigation in, and over-flight over, the disputed waters.
“We took note of the serious concerns 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 statement said.
The landmark arbitration ruling won by Manila against Beijing in July 2016 upheld the Philippines’ rights to its 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone guaranteed under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, including over the resource-rich Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal seized by the Chinese navy in 2012.
The summit document, which was set to be released after the Asean leaders’ meeting on Saturday night, no longer mentioned “respect for legal and diplomatic processes.” Instead, it mentioned “respect for the supremacy of law.”
“We reaffirmed the shared commitment to maintaining and promoting peace, security and stability in the region, as well as to the peaceful resolution of disputes, including full respect for the supremacy of law, without resorting to the threat or use of force, in accordance with the universally recognized principles of international law,” the statement said.
The draft statement also took note of the “improvement of bilateral relations between some Asean Member States and China” as it welcomed the implementation of a statement on unplanned sea encounters and the use of hotlines between foreign ministries during maritime emergencies.
The Philippines is rushing a framework for a proposed Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, which its hopes will be concluded during its 2017 Asean chairmanship.
The framework will be the foundation of a Code of Conduct that will lay down guidelines on how countries claiming parts of the sea, including China, will deal with the dispute.
A 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea is legally non-binding. Leaders nonetheless “underscored 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 welcomed the progress to complete a framework of the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC) by middle of this year, in order to facilitate the early adoption of the COC. We recognized the long-term benefits that would be gained from having the South China Sea as a sea of peace, stability and sustainable development,” the draft statement said.
“We reaffirmed the need to strengthen cooperation and constructive dialogue on maritime security, maritime safety, maritime environment, and other maritime issues… We looked forward to strengthening Asean cooperation to deal with these threats and discuss with our Dialogue Partners cooperative frameworks and measures as soon as practicable,” it added.
Last year’s ruling by the arbitration court in The Hague denied China’s sweeping claims on the strategic seaway, through which more than $5 trillion in global trade passes each year.
China claims most of the sea, but Asean members the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei all have rival claims. Beijing said the ruling had no bearing on its rights in the sea, and described the case as a farce.
Asean references to the South China Sea issue typically do not name China, which has been expanding its seven manmade islands in the Spratlys, including those with hangars, runways, radars and surface-to-air missiles.
Last year’s Asean statement in Laos emphasized the importance of “non-militarization and self-restraint in the conduct of all activities, including land reclamation.”
President Rodrigo Duterte earlier said he would rather keep discussions on the ruling between the Philippines and China.
He insisted it was a “non-issue” with other Asean countries even if there were four other countries with claims on the South China Sea that overlap with China’s.
“Arbitral [ruling], it’s only between China and the Philippines so I’ll skip that…We will not talk about sovereignty of the islands there because that is not an issue of the Asean summit,” the President had said.
Leaders welcomed by Duterte, partner
Duterte, together with his partner Cielito “Honeylet” Avanceña, welcomed regional leaders to the 30th Asean Leaders’ Summit at the Philippine International Convention Center (PICC) in Pasay City.
Asean leaders at summit were Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, President Tran Dai Quang of Vietnam, Laotian Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith, Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, Indonesian President Joko Widodo, and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak.
Duterte presided over the Asean Summit Plenary session at the PICC, which was followed by the Leaders’ Retreat at the nearby Coconut Palace.
The Filipino leader hosted a gala dinner at Sofitel Manila for the Asean leaders, who were garbed in Rajo Laurel barong shirts showcasing the fabric of Mindanao ethno-linguistic tribes. The spouses wore gowns designed by Rhett Eala.
The 30th summit had the theme “Partnering for Change, Engaging the World.”
The 10-member regional bloc, established in Bangkok, Thailand on August 8, 1967, is set to mark its golden jubilee. Its five founding members — Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand — signed the Asean declaration.