THE Philippines should take advantage of its chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) this year by pushing for an expedited negotiation on the framework of the code of conduct (COC) in the South China Sea, according to experts.
Analyst Richard Javad Heydarian said the Philippines now has a tremendous amount of prerogatives as the chairman of Asean in terms of setting the agenda of the regional bloc and in the statement that will be issued later this year.
President Rodrigo Duterte in September 2016 formally accepted the rotating chairmanship of the 10-member organization for 2017. He was not, however, seen to be keen on using the opportunity to be dominant in the sea dispute, as he has repeatedly said that he will not use the July 2016 ruling of an international tribunal invalidating China’s claims on the West Philippine Sea to push Beijing.
“It is not very appropriate for the President to use the term ‘setting aside’ the arbitration issue because this year, as Asean chairman, we have the prerogative to raise that. That’s the leverage we have with the Chinese,” Heydarian said in a recent forum in Manila.
“We have somehow demultilateralized the arbitration issue. We didn’t raise it in Asean. We can still raise it this year as chair of Asean. Now, it’s time for the Chinese to compensate and give us something concretely,” he added.
Beijing allowed Filipinos to fish at the resource-rich Panatag (Scarborough) shoal after Duterte’s state visit in China in October last year.
Nonetheless, Heydarian said this is not enough.
“We have to get guarantees that the Chinese will never militarize the Scarborough Shoal, there should be a sort of agreement. If the Chinese coast guards are based in the Scarborough Shoal over the horizon, so should the Philippine coast guards,” he stressed.
During the chairmanship of Laos, a staunch ally of China, the Asean did not come up with strong support on the decision of The Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration that invalidated Beijing’s excessive claims in the South China Sea.
Heydarian urged Duterte to step up to the play and be on the global stage.
“The Chinese have been dragging their foot since 2002, we can’t wait any longer because facts on the ground are changing every single day. We should push for COC at the negotiating table by the end of this year,” he said.
Professor Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines’ Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, urged the government to be serious, deliberate and careful in its Asean chairmanship.
“Because what we do in the region especially in South China Sea disputes, could set the trend irreversibly. That’s why we need to be much more careful in deliberating our actions, and that has to be considered by the President,” he said.
He advised Duterte to be consistent with his actions and words because it would impact the region.
“The President’s actions and words, they tend to be swinging back and forth,” he said. “With respect to options, the government must continue to keep (its) options open and not close doors unnecessarily or recklessly, which is probably the thing that we fear most with this kind of statements,” he said.