By Joyce Ann L. Rocamora
Manila will not raise its legal victory over Beijing in its historic case on the contested waters of South China Sea when it hosts the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) Summit this year.
Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr., in a press conference, yesterday stressed bringing up the ruling by an arbitral tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) against China would only prove to be counterproductive since “we are already on the stage of bilaterally engaging” Beijing on the issue.
The arbitral ruling “is something that’s there. It is a final and binding decision to the parties.Whatever is said or discussed by anyone outside and third parties to that will not change the decision,” he said.
While other claimants to the disputed waters are free to raise the tribunal ruling, the Philippines will not take the lead, the Foreign Affairs chief added.
According to Yasay, theP hilippines has used the decision as a firm legal basis “for us to pursue our claims and move forward when we are able to engage China in negotiating for the implementation of that ruling.”
“This is a matter that we will be raising with China at a future time,” he added.
‘Code of conduct’ possible
Yasay also said Asean and China are hoping to conclude by mid-2017 a framework for a code of conduct (CoC) in the South China Sea.
“The Philippines will pick up where the Laos chairmanship of Asean left off,” he added.
As chairman of this year’s Asean, Yasay said the Philippines will intensify efforts to fast-track the discussions on the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea and eventually complete the CoC.
He stressed the code would help de-escalate tension in the waters, where China has started militarizing artificial islands built after the Philippines filed an arbitration case against Beijing in The Hague.
“We will intensify efforts for the completion of the framework by the first half of the year,” he added. “We continue to have discussions with officials and talks are ongoing.”
In fact, discreet discussions are currently under way and China has been “very cooperative” in the process, he said.
“The formulation of the CoC is precisely being discussed right now. I don’t want to preempt anything by revealing further information but I hope that it will be achieved by mid-2017,” Yasay stressed. “There is now a convergence of national interest to come up with the CoC and we are fortunate to have gotten this level.”
The CoC has been in the works since 2002 but “intervening events,” as Yasay called, prompted years of delays and prevented it from moving forward.
He said the CoC might “open the door to speed up bilateral engagement” with China to eventually enforce the ruling of an international arbitral tribunal in the disputed waters.
The framework, Yasay disclosed, will include key elements and principles for the legally-binding CoC.
“I hate to think a party not to be bound by it or deviate from it. I’m sure that they will be bound by it,” he said, pointing out that the code should be agreed by all the parties unanimously.
The Hague-based PCA last year nullified China’s excessive claims in the contested waters as it upheld the Philippines’ rights to areas within its 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone, under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Apart from the Philippines, other Asean countries that have overlapping claims in the South China Sea are Brunei, Vietnam and Malaysia.
Yasay said under the chairmanship of the Philippines, Asean will also formally mark 50 years of existence in August 2017.
President Rodrigo Duterte will officially launch the Manila’s chairmanship of the Asean in Davao City on January 15.
“A lot of countries will be looking at the Philippines for its leadership as we spearhead commemorative activities and face present and future challenges of Asean’s integrated efforts amid significant geopolitical shifts in our region and the rest of the world,” he stressed.
The chief diplomat said the Philippines as chair will spearhead efforts to solidify even more as well as enhance the standing, goodwill and credibility of Asean in the international community.
“As we pursue this goal, the Philippines will work closely with fellow Asean member- states to ensure Asean speaks with a unified voice in the international fora especially on matters related to regional, political and economic security,” he added.
China welcomes RP remarks
Beijing, for its part, lauded Manila’s decision to exclude the UN ruling during the Asean meet.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang agreed that “this issue has never been and will not be an issue between China and Asean.”
“The Chinese side welcomes the aforementioned remarks by the Philippines who serves as this year’s rotating chair of Asean,” he added.
He stressed the issue of the South China Sea is only a matter between China and some Asean nations, rather than Asean as a whole.
“The Chinese side will stay committed to peacefully resolving disputes over the South China Sea with countries directly concerned through negotiation and consultation, and safeguarding peace and stability of the region with Asean countries,” Lu said.