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ASEAN countries urged to draft sea code, pressure China

The Vietnamese-claimed Southwest Cay island in the Spratly island group is seen from a Philippine Air Force C-130 transport plane during the visit to the Philippine-claimed Thitu Island by Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, Armed Forces Chief Gen. Eduardo Ano and other officials in disputed South China Sea, western Philippines, Friday, April 21, 2017. The South China Sea issue is expected to be discussed in the 20th ASEAN Summit of Leaders next week. Francis Malasig, Pool Photo via AP

MANILA, Philippines — The Philippines, along with other claimant countries of the South China Sea, should sign the Code of Conduct framework first and pressure China later on, a foreign policy analyst said.

De La Salle University professor Richard Heydarian said that Association of Southeast Nation (ASEAN) countries need a constrainment strategy in resolving the maritime dispute.

"We cannot contain China, they are too powerful... At least what we can do is like-minded countries in the ASEAN can coordinate approach," Heydarian said in a South China Sea forum hosted by Stratbase ADR Institute on Tuesday.

The analyst added that Brunei is interested in joining discussions with Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam regarding the contested waters.

The way forward is for the ASEAN to implement institutional changes such as adopting a qualified majority or an "ASEAN minus X" formula in sensitive issues where it is impossible to get unanimity on decisions, he said.

Heydarian said it would be in the hands of President Rodrigo Duterte what kind of approach he is going to adopt as chairman of the 10-member regional bloc.

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"The reality is that as the chairman of the ASEAN we have two major privileges. One major privilege is the second phase of power which is to set the agenda... The second thing is that during President Duterte's chairman statement, especially later in November, he can say whatever he wants," he said.

The Philippines as ASEAN chair might not exactly dictate the outcome of the final statement but the country can decide on issues that will be discussed on the agenda.

It would be beneficial for the country if Duterte uses this opportunity in the right way, the foreign policy analyst said.

"The reality is that as far as the Duterte administration is concerned there is this very robust debate. One school of thought is that the president is an unhinged demagogue who is a mayor who has no idea about how to deal about foreign policy. There is the other school of thought that portrays him as a strategic genius whose understanding in the South China Sea is so sophisticated that even us experts will never understand," Heydarian said.

Heydarian said that Duterte is somewhere in the middle based on the events in the past few months within the administration.

"There's a very robust debate on how to come up with what I call Goldilocks approach in the South China Sea - how to combine the right amount of engagement with China with the right amount of deterrence," Heydarian said.

While Duterte is seeking to improve economic and investment relations with China, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana is leading efforts to fortify the country's position on the ground.

Last week, Lorenzana visited Pag-asa Island, the largest feature in the Spratly Group, to assert the country's claim to the disputed area. The Duterte administration has allotted P1.6 billion to develop facilities on Pag-asa Island.

"You have this burgeoning strategy but I think it's very important that the Philippines uses this chairmanship of ASEAN this year to make sure that you have a more sophisticated and robust regional approach to measure that China will know that they will be cause to its increasing strategic footprint on the ground," the analyst said.

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