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Defense chiefs back freedom of navigation in South China Sea

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said none among ADMM Plus member-states – Australia, China, India Japan, New Zealand, Russia, South Korea and the US – as well as defense ministers from all ASEAN-member states, opposed the declaration. Philstar.com/AJ Bolando, File

MANILA, Philippines — The South China Sea issue was highlighted at yesterday’s ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM Plus), with participating states declaring support for freedom of navigation and non-militarization as well as observance of a rules-based approach in resolving the conflict.

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said none among ADMM Plus member-states – Australia, China, India Japan, New Zealand, Russia, South Korea and the US – as well as defense ministers from all ASEAN-member states, opposed the declaration.

“A majority of countries declared to continue to use the South China Sea – the waters and air – as they have been using it in the past decades without interference from anybody,” Lorenzana said, without naming these countries.

Even Beijing, Lorenzana said, did not oppose the position taken by participating ADMM Plus states.

“Even China did not oppose all of those statements. So I think it’s OK for China because it’s supposed to be an open water,” Lorenzana said.

With this development, the defense chief said it’s now up to all the states to keep the South China Sea open, as the area benefits a lot of nations.

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Aside from China, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines have overlapping claims in the disputed water.

 Except Brunei, all have troops deployed in their respective areas, with China having an upper hand in the region as it reclaimed several of the formerly unoccupied shoals.

China has transformed the formerly obscure maritime territory into a military base, complete with runways that can accommodate fighter jets and harbors for their navy and coast guard ships.

Beijing repeatedly belied claims that it established a military presence in the disputed region, saying the infrastructure is mainly for civilian purposes.

Earlier, the ASEAN 2017 National Organizing Committee (NOC) said President Duterte would likely include in the agenda of the 301st ASEAN summit the sharing of resources in the South China Sea.

“The matter is still being discussed along with concerns earlier raised by the Chief Executive on the need for the 10 ASEAN-member states to fend off economic sanctions imposed by developed countries,” NOC director for operations Marciano Paynor said yesterday.

Resource-sharing strategy would still be a subject of talks during the meeting of senior officials of ASEAN member-states, he said.

The strategy, Paynor said, would be a “win-win situation and solution” for the maritime dispute that has dogged both the ASEAN and China.

“As always, the devil is in the details and sometimes, in the details, there’s one aspect that might not be agreeable to one and because these are consensus, it has to be threshed out,” Paynor said.

“So I’ll say, in principle, yes, of course, that is one objective of ASEAN,” he added.

Paynor said Duterte’s concerns on economic sanctions would also be discussed, whether it would be part of the agenda.

In a speech during an ASEAN forum last week, Duterte cited as a productive effort the Philippine decision not to confront Beijing on the territorial issue.

 “The South China Sea is one issue, but we are not in a hurry,” Duterte said during an event in Pasay City last week.

“What we did was really the correct step to avoid confrontational talks with almost all of the parties concerned. Just ask for a limited time to solve the problem and sharing of the resources if it could be done,” he said.

Duterte urged claimant countries to respect each other’s interest.

“The economic zones provided are good and our consensus and concessions that are part of the respect for each other’s interest,” he said, adding China is sticking to its claims that it owns a portion of the area.

Regional development

Duterte vowed to rally ASEAN-member states toward achieving more economic development in the region.

“There are so many things that are asked of us, even the products that would enter the European market and the United States,” he said.

“And it seems that the tariff is lowered or none at all. There are so many conditions that affect the entire package of our trade relations with almost everybody,” he added.

Although he did not directly refer to the European Union, the European Parliament recently adopted a resolution urging the EU to persuade the Philippines to stop extrajudicial killings related to the anti-drug campaign. – With Christina Mendez

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