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ASEAN statement to go easy on China

This was evident in the draft of the chairman’s statement for the 30th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit, which mentioned nothing about China’s island-building activities or the ruling of a UN-backed arbitral court invalidating the Asian power’s expansive maritime claims. AP/File

MANILA, Philippines -  While Southeast Asian leaders are expected to express “serious concern” over recent developments in the South China Sea during their summit on Saturday, they are likely to avoid directly criticizing China’s “escalation of activities” including its building of island fortresses in disputed waters.

This was evident in the draft of the chairman’s statement for the 30th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit, which mentioned nothing about China’s island-building activities or the ruling of a UN-backed arbitral court invalidating the Asian power’s expansive maritime claims.

The statement would be a watered-down version of the one issued last year and comes amid a charm offensive by President Duterte – who takes the rotating ASEAN chair this year – to court China for its business and avoid rows over sovereignty in the South China Sea and West Philippine Sea.

In the draft statement, the leaders reaffirmed the importance of enhancing mutual trust and confidence, exercising self-restraint in the conduct of activities, avoiding actions that may further complicate the situation, and pursuing peaceful resolution of disputes, including through full respect for legal and diplomatic processes without resorting to threat or use of force, in accordance with the universally recognized principles of international law such as the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

They also reaffirmed the importance of maintaining peace, stability, security and freedom of navigation in and over-flight over the South China Sea.

For former foreign affairs chief Albert del Rosario, the draft chairman’s statement was a big disappointment. “The draft of the Chairman’s Statement is deeply disappointing and, if not revisited, would manifest an absence of the desired leadership,” he said.

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“On said statement’s treatment of South China Sea developments, our succinct view is that there is a minimum expectation of positive leadership to be attributed to the Philippine chairmanship of Asean,” Del Rosario said.

The Philippines, he said, should not forgo the opportunity to assert effective leadership as chair of the ASEAN by pursuing open discussion on the July 2016 ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration based in The Hague. The ruling also reaffirmed the Philippines entitlements in the West Philippine Sea.

Del Rosario urged on Tuesday the ASEAN to make the South China Sea ruling an “integral” part of the draft framework being finalized and the eventual Code of Conduct.

He stressed that the position that China’s South China Sea build-up is a fait accompli should be rejected.

“We should utilize our leadership to be able to uphold the rule of law,” Del Rosario said. “The leadership of the Philippines will lose a lot of influence if we pass up that opportunity.”

The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) declined to comment on a “watered-down” chairman’s statement.

“The statement will be issued right after the summit. I would not preempt,” said Foreign Affairs spokesman Robespierre Bolivar.

But Bolivar said “we expect the discussions to be more positive because of the developments in the discussion on the framework of the Code of Conduct.”

Not final

A diplomat from the ASEAN secretariat who declined to be named said officials were still working on the draft of the statement and “it may still change” before it is issued at the end of the summit on Saturday.

ASEAN 2017 National Organizing Council director-general for operations Ambassador Marciano Paynor Jr. said the chairman’s statement is still “a work in progress” and its contents subject to discussions among member-countries.

He admitted though that the arbitral tribunal’s decision that invalidated China’s maritime claims might not be mentioned in the chairman’s statement.

“Most probably, it will not be mentioned… It is being discussed and the inputs of member countries will be gathered. For now, it is a work in progress so we cannot discuss it in detail,” Paynor told GMA News TV.

China claims almost the entire South China Sea and West Philippine Sea where about $5 trillion worth of sea-borne goods pass every year. Aside from the Philippines and China, other countries with conflicting claims on the strategic waterway are Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam.

ASEAN references to the South China Sea issue typically do not name China, which has been expanding its seven manmade islands in the Spratlys, including those with hangars, runways, radars and surface-to-air missiles.

Last year’s ASEAN statement in Laos emphasized the importance of “non-militarization and self-restraint in the conduct of all activities, including land reclamation.”

A former government official involved in foreign policy likened the Philippines to Cambodia, which has been accused of taking China’s side and serving as a de facto veto against consensus ASEAN decisions that would otherwise be unfavorable to Beijing.

“Everyone is now watching the Philippines, we expect China to send its message to Southeast Asian countries through Duterte,” the official said, requesting anonymity. “We are now acting like China’s lackey.”

Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon said the Duterte administration should take advantage of the country’s hosting of the ASEAN summit as well as the favorable ruling of the arbitral tribunal to continue defending its claim over the Kalayaan Island Group in the West Philippine Sea.

“We must take this opportunity to reassert our sovereignty over the disputed islands. We have a decision in our favor. We must continue to avail of every opportunity to assert that ruling by the arbitral court,” Drilon told the Kapihan sa Manila Bay news forum.

He also expressed support for efforts to forge a new code of conduct among ASEAN member-states to help ensure stability in the disputed waters. He said the proposed code should be based on the ruling of the tribunal.

According to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, China will soon be capable of deploying fighter jets on three of its reefs. China insists its activities are for defense purposes and are taking place in what it considers its sovereign waters.  Alexis Romero, Paolo Romero, Reuters

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