China is now in favor of crafting a binding code of conduct in the South China Sea, President Rodrigo Duterte said at the conclusion of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) meetings hosted by Manila.
Duterte said China’s turnaround was one of the landmark outcomes of the Asean meetings chaired by the Philippines on top of the signing of an agreement for the protection of promotion of the rights of migrant workers in Southeast Asia.
“At the ministerial level of the Asean, they are working on it (code of conduct). China has graciously agreed to a code of conduct; binds itself to the agreement. The overflight in space above and the use of the [South] China Sea will proceed. It was a promise of China, [that it will be]unbridled, unfettered, that we can use the space,” Duterte said.
The President recalled a conversation between himself and a Chinese official, who he did not name: “One of the officials of China asked me, ‘You are the President of your country, right?’ ‘Yes, correct.’ And he said, ‘And you are very much interested in the protection of the lives of your people?’ ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘China [is], too. We do not want to lose a single life just because we are quarreling over a vast expanse of water.’”
Four claimants in the South China Sea dispute are Asean members: the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam. The non-Asean claimants are China and Taiwan.
“I said to China, we’ll just observe certain norms of conduct. We were pressing China to set a date, and China said, do not just hurry up, but we will consider, really, the fast -tracking [of]this code of conduct,” Duterte added.
The claims of the Asean members are based on their respective exclusive economic zones (EEZ), which is 200 nautical miles from their territorial waters as provided under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
China and Taiwan have similar claims. Beijing is claiming the entire South China Sea based on its “nine-dash line” theory.
Asean has an existing Declaration of Code of Conduct with China that provides that “parties should undertake to exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability including, among others, refraining from action of inhabiting on the presently uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals, cays, and other features and to handle their differences in a constructive manner.”
The non-legally binding Asean declaration, however, did not stop China from making aggressive moves in the South China Sea, prompting Manila to sue Beijing before the UN-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2013.
The tribunal ruled in favor of the Philippines in July 2016 by rejecting China’s nine-dash line theory. It declared the Kalayaan (Spratly) Islands, Panganiban (Mischief) Reef, Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal and Recto (Reed) Bank in South China Sea to be all within the EEZ of the Philippines.
Duterte, however, has said he would not insist on the ruling of the tribunal based in The Hague, which China refuses to recognize.