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DFA reports 'good progress' toward code of conduct framework

Patron said the technical working group tasked to draft the framework has held two meetings. File photo
MANILA, Philippines — The Association of Southeast Asian Nations has made “good progress” in the crafting of the framework of the code of conduct on the South China Sea, an official said Tuesday.
 
Foreign Affairs executive director for ASEAN affairs Zaldy Patron said there have been agreements on the items to be included in the framework.
 
“Whereas before, China and ASEAN member states do not even want to start discussion on the framework of Code of Conduct. But under the Philippine chairmanship, we have seen a lot of movements in the discussion and China has already made an announcement that it’s also supportive of having a framework of the COC,” Patron said in a press briefing in Malacañang.  
 
“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.
 
Patron said the technical working group tasked to draft the framework has held two meetings. Among the topics discussed are guidelines on avoiding tensions in the South China Sea.  
 
He said he could not disclose details because the elements of the framework are still up for negotiation this month.
 
“There will be another meeting this month and everyone is optimistic that we are going to have this framework by middle of this year. So there is good progress,” Patron said.  
 
“We are hoping that by August this year, we can have some positive developments that we can announce publicly.”
 
China claims virtually the entire South China Sea but it is being disputed by four ASEAN members – the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei – and Taiwan.
 
In 2002, ASEAN member countries and China signed the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea to avoid tensions and to resolve maritime disputes peacefully. The parties have yet to craft a binding code of conduct more than 14 years since the declaration was approved.
 
Officials are optimistic that the framework of the code of conduct for South China Sea claimants would be completed during the Philippines’ chairmanship of the ASEAN.
 

No mention of China reclamation at ASEAN summit

 
But some critics are disappointed that China’s alleged military buildup in the South China Sea was not mentioned in the ASEAN chairman’s statement, which capped the week-long summit of the regional bloc.
 
China has built structures believed to be military facilities in seven reefs in South China Sea that are also being claimed by the Philippines namely Panganiban (Mischief), Zamora (Subi), Kagitingan (Fiery Cross), Kennan (Chigua), Mabini (Johnson South), Burgos (Gaven) and Calderon (Cuarteron).
 
The buildup has alarmed China’s neighbors who are worried about its possible impact on freedom of navigation in the area.
 
Patron said no ASEAN head of state had pushed for the inclusion of China’s land reclamation and militarization in the chairman’s statement. He said none of the ASEAN leaders also made reference to the arbitral ruling that voided China’s expansive maritime claim.
 
The Philippines challenged the legality of China’s maritime claim before an international arbitral tribunal in 2013.
 
The court ruled in favor of the Philippines last year, declaring that China’s maritime claim in the South China Sea has no legal basis. China has refused to recognize the ruling and insisted that it would not affect its sovereign rights in the South China Sea.
 
President Rodrigo Duterte has said he would temporarily set aside the tribunal’s decision but also vowed to raise it before China within his term. Duterte also excluded the tribunal ruling from the ASEAN summit agenda, believing it is just an issue between the Philippines and China.
 
Patron denied that China had exerted influence in the crafting of the ASEAN chairman’s statement.
 
“As far as we know it was the leaders, ASEAN, exercised their independence. They should be free from any interference from any countries,” he said.
 
Patron also disagreed with claims that the Philippines’ hosting of ASEAN was a lost opportunity because of the exclusion of the arbitral ruling.
 
“Arbitral award is there. It’s part of international jurisprudence. It’s part of international law. We can invoke it any time 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,” he added.
 
“So 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.” 
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