SOUTHEAST Asian leaders did not "strongly" push to discuss China's loss on the arbitral ruling on the South China Sea, as well as its land reclamation and militarization in the contested waters, during the regional bloc's summit in Manila over the weekend, a Foreign Affairs official said Tuesday.
Foreign Affairs executive director Zaldy Patron said the leaders of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) merely emphasized the "improving cooperation" between them and China as they both seek to finish the framework on the code of conduct (COC) in the South China Sea by the middle of this year.
"There was no one who strongly pushed or mentioned anything about land reclamation and militarization, [as well as the arbitral ruling]," Patron told a press conference.
“On the other hand, the [Asean] leaders highlighted the improving relations between the Asean member-states or Asean and China, and the need to conclude framework for the code of conduct. So that was the emphasis given,” he added.
Patron's statement came after the official Asean chairman’s message made no mention about the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration’s decision on the resource-rich South China Sea, and China’s continuing reclamation and militarization activities in the disputed island.
A phrase citing Asean leaders “serious concerns” over “reclamation and militarization that may complicate the situation” on the South China Sea has been removed at the final joint statement of Asean leaders.
Patron said no consensus had been reached to have the two issues reflected in the Asean joint statement.
He also denied that China attempted to influence the Asean heads of states to ensure that the international court’s ruling invalidating its "historic rights" to the South China Sea and the non-reclamation and non-militarization activities would be removed from the joint statement.
Patron said the regional bloc’s leaders just expressed optimism that there will be a “good progress” as the COC framework in the contested waters is expected to be completed by the middle of this year.
"This is very different, whereas before, China and Asean member-states do not even want to start discussion on the framework on the code of conduct. But under the Philippine chairmanship, we have seen a lot of movements in the discussion and China has already made announcement that it’s also supportive of having a framework of the COC,” Patron said.
“So that is something that we would like to take advantage of. It’s a step forward to having a full and effective COC,” he added.
Asean member-states and China are scheduled to meet in May to discuss the crafting of the COC in the South China Sea, in a bid to settle disputes among the claimants.
Patron said there have been proposals from Asean leaders to make sure that the framework on COC would be “very substantive.”
“So they’re talking about certain guidelines, for example, to avoid tensions within the are, within the region,” he said.
While the Philippines remained silent to invoke the arbitral ruling, Patron echoed the earlier pronouncement of President Rodrigo Duterte that there is the "right time” to uphold it.
Duterte had said that the July 12, 2016 decision on the maritime dispute is an issue that should be discussed only between the Philippines and China.
Patron believed that the Philippines did not lose opportunity when it refused to bring up the Hague-based ruling.
"Arbitral award is there. It’s part of international jurisprudence. It’s part of the international law. We can invoke it anytime we want. And that’s what the President has said, that in the right time, he will make references to it,” he said.
“But right now, the focus really is to concluding the negotiations on the framework for the code of conduct and it is to everyone’s interest that we all have an effective code of conduct,” Patron added.
Patron said the Philippine government can also use the COC framework in South China Sea to support the country’s claim to the disputed island, apart from the international court’s decision that favors the Philippines.
“If you have the arbitration on the other hand, and you have the COC on the other hand also, then you have two legal instruments that you can refer to in the future, if we want to,” he said. (SunStar Philippines)