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As ASEAN chair, Philippines expected to put South China Sea on table

President Rodrigo Duterte has assumed the chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations for 2017. AP/Gemunu Amarasinghe, File

MANILA, Philippines — As the Philippines assumes chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2017, the country is expected to take the lead role in keeping the South China Sea issue on the table.

Amy Searight, a Southeast Asia expert at a top Washington think tank, said the Philippines is the key to keeping the South China Sea agenda for ASEAN discussion.

The Philippines and Vietnam, which is also a South China Sea claimant state, are expected to be most vocal on the issue.

"Other ASEAN members, especially the non-claimants, will not step into the lead if they don't see the Philippines out in the front and Vietnam should not be expected to carry this burden alone," Searight, a program director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), said on Thursday at the Pilipinas Conference organized by Stratbase Albert del Rosario Institute.

Vietnam, however, is reassessing its options given that Manila has been silent on the issue for the part months, Searight said.

The Philippines is also expected to take the lead in building support in the region for the Permanent Court of Arbitration's ruling on the disputed waters.

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Searight noted that the arbitral tribunal's ruling goes way beyond the claims of the Philippines although it is only binding on Beijing and Manila.

"It has a potential to clarify to a valid extent some sea disputes in a useful way but it would be nothing but a dead letter if the Philippines will not stand by it," the CSIS director said.

Meanwhile, the role of the ASEAN on the South China Sea issue is to provide rhetorical support for the maritime rights of its member states who are also claimants.

"ASEAN itself would not take a position on sovereignty disputes but it can and it should defend freedom of navigation and overflight and the right of claimant states to fully administer their territorial sovereignties and [exclusive economic zones]," Searight said.

Center for Strategic and International Studies Southeast Asia program director Amy Searight at the Pilipinas Conference on Thursday, Dec. 9, 2016. The foreign policy conference was organized by Manila-based think tank Stratbase Albert del Rosario Institute for Strategic and International Studies. Philstar.com/Efigenio Toledo IV

Searight lamented that the ASEAN is not united enough to press China to negotiate bilaterally and multilaterally with other claimant states.

"It might be worthwhile to work on a code of conduct with China regarding the disputed sea but this should not be the sole focus of the ASEAN," Searight said.

"ASEAN should explore creative policy on issues like illegal fishing and environmental preservation of maritime areas that are important to most ASEAN members and relevant beyond the South China Sea," she added.

"It's in the interest of all ASEAN member states that China be convinced that bullying its smaller neighbors is unacceptable and counterproductive," the CSIS director added.

The ASEAN failed to reach a consensus on how to deal with China's territorial expansion in the disputed waters during the meeting of foreign ministers last July.

During the ASEAN Summit in Laos last September, President Rodrigo Duterte called on his fellow leaders to craft a framework for a code of conduct for claimants in the South China Sea.

RELATED: ASEAN summit may bow to Chinese pressure on South China Sea | Duterte allows Xi to take lead on South China Sea issue

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