COC must ensure rights of Philippine, other claimants — United States
Lawrence Agcaoili (The Philippine Star) - November 9, 2019 - 12:00am

WASHINGTON – An official from the US State Department said the proposed code of conduct being finalized by Southeast Asian nations and China should ensure that the rights of the Philippines and other claimants to the disputed waters are protected.

In an interview with visiting Filipino journalists, State Department director for office of maritime Southeast Asia Mark Clark said parties involved in the negotiations should make sure that the document adheres to international law and would not block the rights of other countries.

He said other countries like the US should continue to have access to the strategic waters being claimed nearly in its entirety by China.

“It’s quite important, quite essential that whatever comes out of the code of conduct is very much in line with international law and supports the rights of the claimant states under international law, including the Philippines. It doesn’t take away your rights, doesn’t take away the rights of the US to sail or navigate or fly freely over an international space,” Clark said.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) including the Philippines agreed with China in August last year to a single draft of the code of conduct. The document should be finalized within three years starting this month.

ASEAN leaders, including President Duterte, have vowed earlier this year to fast track a meaningful code of conduct in the disputed South China Sea.

China, however, has been opposing foreign intervention, amid US insistence for a meaningful code of conduct, maintaining the sea disputes in the region are purely an Asian matter.

Washington and Beijing have been at odds over the territorial row in the South China Sea. China has turned several former reefs into artificial islands with military facilities, runways and surface-to-air missiles despite the Hague ruling on the dispute.

The US has declared that it is in its national interest to ensure freedom of navigation and overflight in the waters where China, Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan have overlapping claims.

“We have a vested interest in the outcome even if we are not party to the talks,” Clark said.

For his part, Pentagon spokesman David Eastburn said every country in and around the South China Sea regardless of size has equal stake in the region.

“It’s important to every country involved that they have a say,” he said.

The agreement is aimed at restraining the aggressive actions in the South China Sea as Beijing has built artificial islands in disputed reefs.

Think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies deputy director Brian Harding reiterated the code of conduct should be legally-binding for it to be an effective document.

“The code of conduct should be legally-binding, but it comes down to other countries like the Philippines and Vietnam if they’re going to bend,” Harding said.

“I hope there is a code of conduct, but a code of conduct is only as good as the commitment of the parties to adhere to it,” director of Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation director for Asian Studies Center director Walter Lohman said.

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