Philippines, China push for framework of code of conduct in South China Sea

Alexis Romero - Philstar.com
VIENTIANE, Laos – The Philippines and China have stressed the need to craft a framework for a code of conduct for claimants in the South China Sea and to settle territorial disputes peacefully.
The overlapping maritime claims in the region was one of the topics discussed during the ASEAN-China meet held Wednesday here and attended by heads of state, including President Rodrigo Duterte.
“China was vigorously asking to begin with the Code of Conduct as well as Singapore, and our president of the Philippines -- President Duterte -- also expressed his approval of having this framework of Code of Conduct initiated,” Presidential Communications Secretary Martin Andanar said in a press briefing.
“The trend to resolve differences will be good, there is now positive direction in our relations, and the (code of) conduct in the South China Sea should happen next year after the framework of the Code of Conduct has been dealt with by the ASEAN region,” he added.
Andanar said Duterte also called on his fellow leaders to “be on the side of peace.”
“International disputes should inspire us to work together with adherence to the rule of law and international governing bodies; put words into actions and be on the side of peace,” he quoted Duterte as saying during the meet.
Andanar said Chinese Premier Li Keqiang was “stoically listening” when Duterte delivered the statement.
The Philippines and China are embroiled in a territorial dispute over parts of the South China Sea, where more than $5 trillion in trade passes through every year. China claims historic rights over about 90 percent of the area while Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan have overlapping claims.
In 2013, the Philippines, under President Benigno Aquino III, questioned the legality of China’s sweeping territorial claim, calling it “exaggerated” and “excessive.”
A Hague-based arbitral tribunal ruled in favor of the Philippines last July and declared that China’s nine-dash line claim in the South China Sea has no legal basis. China has refused to honor the decision, calling it “illegal since Day One.”
Duterte has expressed readiness to hold bilateral talks with China to settle the dispute. He has also asked former President Fidel Ramos to hold backchannel talks with Chinese representatives.
Leaders who attended the ASEAN-China meet agreed that the South China Sea row should not define the relationship between the regional bloc and the emerging superpower.
“Relations are broader than any singular issue in terms of China and the ASEAN and China’s success is important to ASEAN and vice versa,” Andanar said.  
When asked if the Philippines would push for the inclusion of the arbitral tribunal’s ruling in the ASEAN chairman’s statement, presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella replied: “There is a way of referring to these matters without specifically addressing it that way.”

Chinese ships near Panatag

The ASEAN-China meet happened days after the Defense department revealed that 10 Chinese ships have been spotted around Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal, an area off Zambales that is within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana suspects that the Chinese government is eyeing a reclamation project in the area, a known traditional fishing route of Filipino fishermen that was seized by Beijing in 2012. 
In a statement Wednesday, the Chinese Embassy said that "there are no dredging or building activities" in the area.
"The Chinese side has maintained the presence of a number of coast guard vessels for law enforcement patrols in the waters of Huangyan Dao (China's name for the shoal)," it also said.
"The Chinese side is willing to work with the Philippine side to enhance mutual trust and promote development of bilateral relations," the embassy also said.

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