The maritime dispute will not be on the agenda of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) Summit, given that President Rodrigo Duterte had declared the issue “is better left untouched.”
The President on Sunday reiterated he does not want to bring up the enforcement of the landmark United Nations (UN) Arbitration Tribunal ruling in July 2016 that found China’s claim over the entire South China Sea illegal.
“China is the number one economic power. We have to be friends [with China]. Other countries would like us to confront China on these issues; the South China Sea [issue]is better left untouched,” Duterte said in his speech during the Asean Business and Investment Summit.
“Xi Jinping agreed it is better to preserve the nation than wage a useless war,” the President added, referring to his conversation with Chinese President Xi during their bilateral meeting on Saturday night after they attended the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in Danang, Vietnam.
Several countries – Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Brunei, Cambodia, Singapore, China, the Philippines and Taiwan – have overlapping claims over the South China Sea. The international tribunal in its ruling said the Spratly Islands, Panganiban (Mischief) Reef, Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal and Recto (Reed) Bank are all within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone and that “China had violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights by interfering with Philippine fishing and petroleum exploration; constructing artificial islands and failing to prevent Chinese fishermen from fishing in the zone.”
Moreover, the tribunal ruled that fishermen from the Philippines and other countries had traditional fishing rights in the Scarborough Shoal.
Duterte, however, said it was not the right time to take an aggressive stance on the ruling’s implementation.
“The arbitration rendered by the international court does not mean anything to anybody, except China, which does not want to follow, and us, to insist [on its implementation]. Even if we want to enforce it, by what means?” Duterte said.
“I do not want to talk about this for the moment. It is not time for aggression, it is not a time for violence. We have so many domestic problems to take care of before we start to venture on some sort of an aggressive stand,” he added.
Negotiating Code of Conduct
Asean leaders are likely to announce the start of negotiations for the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea during the summit, the Department of Foreign Affairs said.
“We expect the leaders to announce the negotiations, but the actual start of negotiations will probably happen sometime next year, which also ties to the fact that the Philippines will take over as country coordinator of Asean-China relations starting next year,” DFA spokesperson Rob Bolivar said.
“The negotiations will be based on the framework of the Code of Conduct that was adopted in August. The framework is the outline of the actual Code,” Bolivar added, referring to the code agreed upon three months ago when the Philippines hosted the 50th Asean Regional Forum.
He, however, could not say if the code would be legally binding, considering that the existing Asean-Declaration of Conduct (DOC) on the South China Sea signed in 2002 is a non-legally binding pact.
The 2002 Asean-DOC 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.”
During the 50th Asean Regional Forum in August, Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano said China was being practical in proposing a non-binding Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.
Cayetano explained that a legally binding COC would be problematic because Asean and China would have to agree on who would impose the penalties in the event any of the signatories violates its provisions.