South China Sea ruling 'not on Asean agenda'

File photo of China's Liaoning aircraft carrier with accompanying fleet conducting a drill in an area of the South China Sea.
File photo of China's Liaoning aircraft carrier with accompanying fleet conducting a drill in an area of the South China Sea.PHOTO: REUTERS

MANILA • An arbitration tribunal ruling that rejected China's claims to the South China Sea and strained Chinese relations with the Philippines will not be on the agenda of this year's Asean summit, a senior Philippine official said yesterday.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte reiterated last month he wanted to avoid confrontation with China and saw no need to press Beijing to abide by the July ruling that went in favour of the Philippines.

"The Hague ruling will not be on the agenda in the sense that it's already part of international law," Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Enrique Manalo told reporters ahead of the Asean meeting to be chaired by the Philippines in April. "So we really can't discuss the ruling. It's there."

The July ruling rejected China's territorial claims over much of the South China Sea. Beijing declared the decision as "null and void".

However, it called on countries involved in the dispute to start talks again to peacefully resolve the issue.

What the 10-member Asean will focus on is the completion of a framework for a code of conduct to ease tension in the disputed waters, Mr Manalo said. "We hope we will have a pleasant scenario during our chairmanship. We will talk to China in a way we will put forth our interest just as we expect China will put forth theirs," he said.

Since 2010, China and Asean have been discussing a set of rules aimed at avoiding conflict. China claims most of the energy-rich waters through which about US$5 trillion (S$7.2 trillion) in ship-borne trade passes every year. Neighbours Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims.

At the Asean summit last year, China's closest Asean ally, Cambodia, blocked any mention of the court ruling against Beijing in a joint statement.

Mr Duterte made a stunning U-turn in foreign policy a few months ago when he made overtures towards China and started berating traditional ally the US.

In return, China has softened its stance since Mr Duterte returned from a high-profile trip to Beijing in October. In a fillip for Mr Duterte's diplomacy, Chinese vessels left the contested Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, a rich fishing ground where they had been preventing Filipino fishermen from casting their nets.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 06, 2017, with the headline 'South China Sea ruling 'not on Asean agenda''. Print Edition | Subscribe