Ministers of 10-nation bloc OK sea code of conduct
Foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian (Asean) Nations endorsed a framework of a code of conduct (COC) for the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) even as the Philippines reiterated its preference for a “legally binding document,” the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said on Saturday.
Top diplomats from the 10-member bloc converged in Manila for the 50th Asean Foreign Ministers’ Meeting to tackle regional issues such as the South China Sea dispute and North Korea’s nuclear program (see related story on this page) .
Tensions however flared as Vietnam urged other Asean nations to take a stronger stand against Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea, as a tense regional security forum began Saturday with North Korea also under fire over its missile tests.
In a news conference at Conrad Hotel, Foreign Affairs spokesman Robespierre Bolivar said the framework was endorsed for adoption by both parties during the Asean-China meeting on Sunday.
“Yes, the ministers endorsed the framework of the code of conduct for eventual adoption [by]the Asean-China Ministerial meeting on August 6,” Bolivar told reporters.
Bolivar declined to give further details but reiterated that the Philippines, chairman of this year’s Asean meetings, preferred a legally binding COC, as earlier stated by Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano.
“The Secretary (Cayetano) has mentioned that, the Philippine position is preferably for a legally binding instrument,” Bolivar said.
The Asean and Chinese foreign ministers are expected to discuss and approve the framework COC and then forward it to their leaders, who are expected to give their approval during the Asean Summit in November. Only then will work on the code of conduct itself begin.
‘Not an instrument’
In a final draft of the “Framework of a Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea,” obtained by The Manila Times, Asean and China agreed that the framework for COC in the South China Sea was “not an instrument to settle territorial disputes or maritime delimitation issues.”
A draft framework emphasizes a code that is “rules-based,” with “a set of norms to guide the parties and promote maritime cooperation” in disputed waters.
It also promotes “mutual trust, cooperation and confidence, prevent incidents, manage incidents should they
occur and create a favorable environment for the peaceful resolution of disputes.”
Both parties also agreed to “ensure maritime security and safety and freedom of navigation and overflight.”
They also decided to maintain “respect for each other’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity in accordance with international law, and the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other states.”
Among the “basic undertakings” set forth in the framework was the “promotion of trust and confidence” and the exercise of “self-restraint” among claimant parties.
The document also emphasized both parties’ “commitment to the full and effective implementation of the DOC (Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea).”
The DOC, signed by both Asean and China in 2002, aims to address maritime disputes peacefully. All sides agreed not to use threats or force to assert claims.
But China refused to turn it into a legally binding “code of conduct,” using the intervening time to build its artificial islands.
Beijing claims nearly all of the South China Sea, despite partial counter-claims from Taiwan and Asean members like the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, and Vietnam.
During the 30th Asean Summit in April, the 10-member regional bloc chose not to mention China’s reclamation activities and apparent militarization in the disputed territories.
Tensions between the Philippines and China erupted after Beijing’s expansive claims over the South China Sea and full scale reclamation activities in the contested waters.
But since President Rodrigo Duterte assumed office in June 30 last year, he has maintained “a soft approach” to China as he favored bilateral talks to settle the South China Sea disputes.
The Philippines won a landmark decision at the United Nations-backed arbitral tribunal in July 2016 but China has repeatedly rejected the decision.
In May, the Philippines and China held bilateral talks to discuss “sensitive” issues over the disputed sea.
Vietnam pushes back
Asean members were united in taking Pyongyang to task over its nuclear program but there was far less consensus on the South China Sea dispute, with Vietnam resisting efforts by the Philippines to placate Beijing, diplomats told AFP.
Vietnam on Friday night sought to insert tough language against China in the Asean statement that was scheduled to be released after the Southeast Asian ministers wrapped up their own talks on Saturday.
According to a copy of a draft obtained by AFP, Vietnam lobbied for Asean to express serious concern over “construction” in the sea, in reference to China’s ramped up building of artificial islands in the disputed waters in recent years.
Like the Philippines, Vietnam also wanted Asean to insist in the statement that a planned code of conduct for the sea with China be “legally binding,” which Beijing opposes.
The lobbying occurred when the Asean foreign ministers held unscheduled and informal talks late on Friday night.
“The discussions were really hard. Vietnam is on its own to have stronger language on the South China Sea. Cambodia and Philippines are not keen to reflect that,” one diplomat involved in the talks told AFP.