CHINA will be hosting a dialogue with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) in May over the crafting of a framework for a legally-binding code of conduct in the South China Sea, acting Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo said Wednesday.
“China will be hosting a meeting in May and hopefully, maybe at that time, we will have made significant progress on the framework [for the code of conduct in the South China Sea],” Manalo told reporters in Thailand.
This developed as Asean, with the Philippines as chair of this year’s summit, is eyeing a framework for the code of conduct in the South China Sea by this year.
Manalo said China and Asean are expected to discuss the Declaration on the Code of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), as well as the completion of the code of conduct in the South China Sea.
He also stressed the significant development that China “is now very interested in getting a framework.”
“Now, the purpose of the code is to see how we can manage our disputes carefully, not to raise tensions, not to escalate tensions. And that’s the whole idea of the code. So all countries, even though we may have some disputes, we have to behave and deal with each other in a way that doesn’t lead to conflict but rather promotes cooperation,” he said.
“The hope of everyone is that by the time we get to the meeting in May, the senior officials in the Asean-China DOC will be able to already have at least preliminary agreement on the framework. That’s our aim. And the Philippines is fully-committed to seeing that we can get to that point.”
The DOC, signed by all Asean-member countries and China on November 4, 2002, aims to exercise self-restraint and prevent non-militarization within the contested waters. Despite the DOC, tensions continue to escalate among claimants to the South China Sea.
But in this year’s Philippine chairmanship and hosting of the 50th year of Asean, the framework is deemed the “most significant achievement.”
The member-states of Asean are Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. Four of Asean members – Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines, and Vietnam – are claiming parts of the disputed area, while China and Taiwan are claiming most of its features.
Manalo admitted that there would be challenges in crafting the final version of the code of conduct in the South China but had high hopes for a successful deal.
“Of course, there are challenges in the sense that you know, it’s Asean and China. So that’s 11 countries and all have views. But you know, I think, through the years, many ideas have already developed regarding what kind of elements can go into the code. So every country has fairly good idea,” Manalo said.
“That’s why I think, even though there will be challenges in agreeing what should be the main elements, I think there’s still a good ground as long as countries are willing, have political will to arrive at certain agreements on the framework,” he added.
No filing of protest vs China
Amid the agreement between Asean and China to come up with Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, China has still been reported of building up structures on Panatag (Sarborough) Shoal, a Philippine territory in the contested waters.
Reports said China’s preparations were now underway to build environment monitoring station on Panatag Shoal.
Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonio Carpio had urged the Philippine government to file a “strong formal protest” against the Chinese building activity on the shoal but Manalo said the Department of Foreign Affairs is merely seeking China’s clarification since it is “only reported plan”.
“Those options [Carpio suggested] will only swing in under certain conditions. As of now, it’s really very difficult to comment on them and all we can really do is to wait for China’s clarification on the reported plan,” he said.
Manalo then echoed the statement of President Rodrigo Duterte to maintain “diplomatic and peaceful settlement of disputes” in the South China Sea.
“We’ll be having a chance to talk to China face-to-face on the issues of the South China Sea. We agreed to establish a bilateral mechanism with China to discuss issues on South China Sea. So I think the President is very clear: We want to have a peaceful, diplomatic settlement of dispute but we will not fail to protect our national interests, if necessary,” Manalo said.
Panatag Shoal still under PH’s close watch
Manalo added that the government is still maintaining a “close watch” on the Panatag Shoal.
As of now, Manalo said there should be no cause of alarm since Filipino fishermen are still allowed to go to the disputed waters.
He said Filipinos can still “go freely” to the Panatag Shoal, despite the reported building of permanent constructions in the area.
“In the meantime, we are maintaining a close watch on the Scarborough Shoal so we would be aware on the developments within the area,” he said. (SunStar Philippines)