China, Asean can handle sea dispute –Chinese envoy

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As the Philippines grapples with a new world order that sees China as a military, political and economic power, Chinese Ambassador to Manila Zhao Jianhua allayed fears that disputes over islands and reefs in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) would threaten stability in Asia.

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He said China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), of which the Philippines is a member, can resolve the territorial disputes.

In his speech during the 65th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China at the Makati Shangri-la on Monday, the envoy maintained that there is stability in the region, and that there is “no problem with freedom of navigation.”
“China and Asean countries are well capable of effectively managing and properly handling specific disputes and maintaining overall peace, stability and cooperation in the region,” he said.

“China is ready to strengthen dialogue and cooperation with Asean to deepen practical cooperation within the framework of the DOC and push for the early conclusion of a Code of Conduct of the parties in the South China Sea [COC] through consensus,” the envoy said, referring to the 2002 Declaration on the Code of Conduct (DOC) signed between China and Asean.

The ambassador however deplored the exaggeration and sensationalization of tensions in the West Philippine Sea.

Although he did not refer to the Philippines, Zhao took a swipe at the Philippine-proposed multi-level approach in dealing with the overlapping claims in the region.

“China does not approve of exaggerating and still less sensationalizing the so-called tension in the South China Sea,” he said in one of his rare public appearances since assuming his post early this year.

Zhao referred to the “dual-track” approach Beijing proposed in 2012 which calls for bilateral negotiations between the countries directly affected by the disputes.

He said peace and stability must be “jointly maintained” by China and Asean countries, a statement that can be taken as Beijing’s objection to US presence in the region.

Asean is composed of the Philippines, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar and Brunei Darussalam.

Although not a party to the regional disputes, the US has played a key role in boosting the military capabilities of the Philippines, as well as other allies in the region, because of its “strategic interest” to ensure freedom of navigation and commerce in the sea lane.

“Consultations and negotiations by countries directly concerned are the most effective and viable way to resolve disputes, which also conform to international law and common practices and constitute one of the most important provisions in the DOC,” Zhao said, The non-binding edict hopes to reduce tensions in the region and prevents claimant-countries—China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan—from aggressively pursuing their claims.

Zhao noted that “experiences over the years” proved that as long as parties are committed to the dual-track approach and there are “positive efforts” to interact
A more binding agreement, the COC is enshrined under the DOC although China has been known to drag its feet in concluding it with Asean.

But while talks on how to resolve the dispute are pending and the Philippines waits for the decision on the arbitration case it filed against China, Zhao said Beijing wants to build a “21st Maritime Silk Road” that will further strengthen maritime cooperation with Asean countries.

He stressed the need to focus on “marine economy, maritime connectivity, marine environmental protection, disaster prevention and reduction, maritime security and culture.”

There must also be an advance dialogue and cooperation among coastal countries “to discuss cooperation mechanisms and modalities acceptable to all sides,” Zhao said, as he underscored the need to promote joint development at sea through dialogue and negotiation.

The Manila Times has invited the Chinese envoy to the business forum sponsored by this paper but he has not confirmed if he will attend. The forum, titled “Business as Usual in Unusual Times,” will be held on October 29. It aims to foster business relations between Filipinos and Chinese entrepreneurs.

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