SINCE the last 20 days of March, China has been trying to preempt (or manipulate, if you prefer) the 10 Asean members—Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar (Burma), the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam—on the final version of the proposed Code of Conduct (COC) for the South China Sea.
We will see what happens in Beijing next month when China hosts an Asean meeting with senior Asean officials, courtesy of China’s Xi Jinping.
Beijing’s idea, naturally, is to dictate the terms of the COC, the formal agreement among the Asean members and their Asia-Pacific region trading friends and ideological allies—China (including Hong Kong and Taiwan), Russia, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and the United States.
These countries are all internationally recognized sovereign states, politically independent with their respective duly organized governments, equal to each other under the civilized family of nations, and members of the United Nations organization.
The COC will define and regulate the actions or behavior of each sovereign state towards the other(s) in the South China Sea, under the rules of international law. Once rules and agreements among Sovereign States are signed and ratified by the concerned states, these become part of the domestic laws of these states.
Each state is required by convention or common practice to observe these laws, lest they violate the agreement or convention—and an international dispute arises. These are settled in the different international courts of justice established by the United Nations for specific violations or crimes.
Thus, labor disputes between employees and employers of different nationalities are settled by the international labor arbitration court in Switzerland; international territorial (land) disputes are argued and settled in The Hague (like the Thai-Cambodian border dispute in the 1960s); international problems violating the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) are debated and solved by another court also in The Hague (like the case the Philippines won against China last year but Beijing has refused to recognize); war crimes against humanity are dealt with and punished by a special international court of justice, as the case of Hitler and Nazi German, fascist Italian and imperial Japan war leaders after the last world war ended in 1945.
The Asean had declared, as early as in its organization under the Bangkok Declaration 50 years ago, the entire Southeast Asia region and its seas to be a region of peace, amity and friendship. The original five Asean founding members—Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines—had one objective: a sustained, friendly, free of war or conflict, and economically progressive region for their people.
I know because I have been covering the Asean, and its forerunners—the failed Association of Southeast Asia, and the Malaysia-Philippine-Indonesia (MAPHILINDO) association for the international wire services, and local and foreign media I have worked with the past 60 years.
Last March 13 and 14, Asean and Asia-Pacific diplomatic and security experts met in Jakarta to discuss the COC. Non-Filipino delegates who prefer anonymity said the Chinese delegation tried to confuse the participants, by saying the Philippines had refused to hold bilateral negotiations with China on their border differences.
The Chinese delegate refused to mention the Asean Treaty of Peace, Amity and Friendship which Beijing signed—a “deliberate distortion of historical facts”— my source said. “The Chinese kept stressing that Beijing has extended technical and financial aid to all Asean members for the railway and telecommunications network connecting the Asean members with Beijing “for regional economic progress.”
It appears that while China keeps declaring it agrees to keep “freedom of navigation” in the South China Sea, it limits that to commercial shipping only. Chinese jet aircraft and naval ships have had near misses with American, Japanese and South Korean military patrol planes in the disputed areas.
This year, the Philippines (as chair of the ASEAN 50th year anniversary summit meetings) is pushing for a final COC—after 15 years of wrestling with the thorny issue. And guess what?
China foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying confirmed last week through Xinhua and international reports that “some officials of the Philippine foreign affairs ministry have been invited to China in May for bilateral consultation mechanisms regarding maritime dispute in the South China Sea,” coinciding with the state visit of President Rodrigo Duterte “to attend the One-Belt, One-Road event” hosted by President Xi.
At the same time, China’s Ambassador Zhao Jinhua tersely said to Philippine and international media in Manila: “China is determined to achieve peaceful resolution to the South China Sea maritime dispute.” And Philippine National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon said we “cannot do anything about Chinese naval vessels” prolonged presence in our Benham Rise territory in the eastern seaboard?
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