MANILA, Philippines — The Philippines is hopeful that the framework of the code of conduct for the South China Sea dispute would be completed during its chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations this year.
Foreign Affairs acting spokesman Robespierre Bolivar said the Philippines is upbeat about the prospects of the framework as there has been an “increasing level of trust and confidence” among ASEAN member countries and China.
“We are more hopeful now than we were maybe a year or two years ago that we would have significant progress and there’s a commitment from ASEAN and China to complete the framework, in fact, by middle of this year,” Bolivar said in a press briefing Wednesday in Malacañang.
“We hope that ASEAN and China will make more significant progress. There has been increasing level of trust and confidence among the parties. And we are very hopeful that we will complete the framework by 2017,” he added.
ASEAN and China signed the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea in 2002 in an effort to resolve conflicting maritime claims peacefully.
More than 14 years have passed since the declaration was signed in Cambodia but the parties have yet to craft a binding code of conduct.
Issues of regional concern
The framework will identify the key components of a code of conduct, a document needed to start the discussions among the signatories.
Bolivar declined to identify the potential contentious issues that may arise during the discussions of the code of conduct. He said such details can only be disclosed once the negotiations are completed.
“We expect, of course, issues of regional concern, of regional import to be raised not just by the president but by the other ASEAN leaders,” Bolivar said.
“And the Philippine position is well known and the president has stated on numerous occasions that the primary consideration for his foreign engagements is the national interest,” he added.
China claims about 90 percent of the South China Sea but this is being contested by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.
Last year, an international tribunal in Hague ruled in favor of the Philippines and invalidated China’s maritime claim but the Chinese government refused to recognize the decision.
President Duterte previously said he is willing to temporarily set aside the arbitral ruling as the Philippines seeks stronger ties with China. He stressed though that he would never surrender the Philippines’ rights in the South China Sea.
The Philippines is hosting the 30th ASEAN Summit and Related Meetings to be held from April 26 to 29, an event that will coincide with the 50th anniversary of the regional bloc.
A total of 137 meetings, two summits, 17 ministerial meetings, 42 senior officials meetings, and 76 technical working group meetings are being held simultaneously in different parts of the country.
Ongoing meetings include the 7th annual meeting of the civilian nuclear energy cooperation sub-sector network in Pasay and the intercessional regional economic partnership trade negotiating committee in Panglao, Bohol.
The ASEAN Summit and Related Meetings will start with the meeting of the committee of permanent representatives to ASEAN on April 26.
The Brunei Darussalam-Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippines East ASEAN Growth Area (BIMP-EAGA) and ASEAN senior officials’ preparatory meetings will be held the following day.
Events to be held on April 28 will be the Indonesia-Malaysia-Thailand Growth Triangle senior officials’ preparatory meetings, the ASEAN Business Advisory Council Prosperity for All Summit; the 14th ASEAN Leadership Forum; ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting; the 15th ASEAN Political Security Council Meeting; and the 19th ASEAN Coordinating Council Meeting.
The actual summit or the ASEAN leaders’ meeting will be held on April 29 at the Philippine International Convention Center (PICC) in Pasay. They will also hold a retreat at the Coconut Palace on the same day.
The leaders will then return to the PICC for some meetings before attending a gala dinner to be hosted by Duterte.
Duterte will hold bilateral meetings on the sidelines of the ASEAN meeting.
Brunei Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah will visit the Philippines on April 27 while Indonesian President Joko Widodo will arrive the following day. Widodo will then fly to Davao City to witness the launching of the Davao-General Santos-Bitung roll-on roll-off route on April 30.
Ambassador Marciano Paynor, Jr., director-general for operations of the ASEAN 2017 National Organizing Council, said the preparations for ASEAN started in 2014.
“However, we lost a bit of time in the preparations because of the turnover of the administrations. The previous administration decided and rightly so to allow the incoming administration to decide how it wanted to host the 2017 ASEAN meetings,” Paynor said.
“However, our administrative rules, including procurement laws made it very difficult for us to prepare because bidding process usually takes all of three months,” he added.
Paynor said organizers are still conducting biddings for suppliers for the subsequent meetings, which should have been finished before the start of the meetings in January.
Paynor said security measures are in place to ensure the safety of delegates following the attack by Abu Sayyaf bandits in Bohol, one of the provinces hosting ASEAN-related meetings.
“They felt that the situation has been contained and therefore, the meeting should go on. It was natural, of course, for some of the Embassies to ask us our plans,” he said.
“We have, of course, alternate plans and that meeting would have been held here in Manila had it been necessary to do so. But we always say we will not be coerced or held hostage by these actions. But at the same time, we need to be sure that we can assure the safety of the delegates.”
Paynor said holding a “zero-incident” meeting is the number one priority of organizers.
Duterte preparing for summit
Paynor said Duterte has been reading on regional issues in preparation for the Philippines’ hosting of the ASEAN summit. He said the president is aware that assuming the chairmanship of ASEAN would not be that easy.
“We all must understand that this is his first time to really host. He had attended the Laos ASEAN Summit and the Lima, Peru APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation) Summit,” Paynor said.
“So he has a fairly good idea of how it is like from the other side of the bench so to speak ‘no. Now that he is hosting, he did say, ‘O, hindi lang pala ganon kadali (It was not that easy),’” he added.
“It is difficult to chair a meeting, one meeting of an hour or so, but to chair subsequent and series of meetings is really very difficult. And to think that many of the issues here are relatively new to him.”