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Code of Conduct won't remove China's 'de facto' control of South China Sea

In this Feb. 27, 2015 photo provided by fisherman Renato Etac, Chinese Coast Guard members approach his fellow fishermen near Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal in the West Philippine Sea. More than once, the Chinese approached Etac’s boat and pointed their rifles at him, but he says he knew they would not fire and start a war. AP, File

MANILA, Philippines — The gains of China are unlikely to be reversed even if a code of conduct in the West Philippine Sea is agreed upon by the parties to the dispute, according to an expert on Asian security.

Christopher Roberts, director of the National Asian Security and Studies Program at the University of South Wales in Australia, said that preventing China or at least halting it from progressing in its "de facto control" of the West Philippine Sea would require mechanisms such as joint patrols with countries beyond Southeast Asia such as Japan and Australia.

He said that what a Code of Conduct might be able to accomplish was to prevent the breakout of hostilities and guide the region's militaries and coast guards on how to treat one another.

"It is unlikely to do much in terms of reversing the gains that China has already obtained in the region," Roberts told reporters on the sidelines of the "ASEAN Leadership Forum amid a New World Order" forum in Makati City on Wednesday.

"To reverse that or to at least halt China progressing on the territorial or de facto control of the South China Sea will probably require actions that extend beyond ASEAN and other parties such as through coast guard patrols that may involve other countries such as Japan, Australia or other parties in the future," he added.

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Although not yet close to a final code, the adoption of the framework, or outline, of the agreement is already a "positive step" considering the difficulties that the parties to the dispute have experienced in the past years, according to Roberts.

During the same forum, former Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert Del Rosario urged claimants to the West Philippine to adhere to the principle of the rule of law in managing their disputes over the disputed waters where around $5 billion of trade passes each year.

He said that to benefit all countries in the region they should adhere to the principle that right was better than might, an apparent dig at China's use of military force to assert its control over the region.

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It was during the time of Del Rosario at the Department of Foreign Affairs when the Philippines lodged a case against China at a United Nations-backed tribunal over what Manila perceived as an expansive claim over the waters following the standoff at the Scarborough Shoal.

He also slammed China for its expansionary goals in the West Philippine Sea and for failing to uphold its legal and diplomatic obligations.

"While undertaking its expansionary goals especially in the South China Sea, China has not upheld its legal obligations and diplomatic commitments in the region," the foreign affairs chief of former President Benigno Aquino III said.

"China has used a creeping force to ensure its control of the vital waterways on which we all depend," Del Rosario added.

READ: Palawan within range of China's jets, missiles in South China Sea

He said that China as a nation was still at a crossroad and deciding on the approach that it would use in managing its relations with its neighbors.

"It can still decide if the benefits of its muscular approach outweigh the detriments to our neighborhood," he said.

Del Rosario also called on ASEAN to demonstrate more leadership in addressing the issues facing its members such as the problem on the nuclear and missile program of North Korea and the West Philippine Sea dispute.

"If ASEAN pursues an overabundance of caution, it stands to put to risk it's becoming a bystander to the events within its own region," he said.

He also stressed that the decision handed by the UN tribunal was final and would stand through time. He also underscored that the Philippines would achieve its interests if it would ensure adherence to internationally agreed standards.

The lack of respect for internationally sanctioned standards is what is fueling the challenges in the region, according to Del Rosario.

"Without this emphasis, we have a disjointed reality between the statements that we make and the realities that prevail on the ground. these practices, militarization among them, contribute to the confusion and subtract from trust," he told his audience.

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He also warned that using military and economic might to settle disagreements would not be sustainable and would last only until the balance of power changed anew.

Del Rosario also highlighted the importance of building a minimum defense capability to deter abuse by more powerful players in the region.

Although he conceded that this might raise tensions in the region, he said that this was a better alternative than the loss of a country's sovereignty.

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