South-east Asia's foreign ministers are set to endorse on Sunday the framework of a code of conduct (COC) meant to prevent conflicting territorial claims in the South China Sea from erupting into violent confrontations.
"We have commitments from Asean and China to finalise, to approve the framework of the COC… We expect that the foreign ministers will endorse the framework as it is currently approved by the senior ministers last May, to endorse it during the meeting on Aug 6 in Manila," said Philippines' Foreign Affairs spokesman Robespierre Bolivar at a news briefing yesterday.
He said the framework "basically presents an outline of the code of conduct".
"We expect that the talks on the actual COC will begin in earnest, after the approvals process… This is actually a very big step towards realising the COC on the South China Sea," he added.
After the endorsement from the Asean and China ministers, he said, the framework would be elevated to the leaders, who will instruct both sides to take steps towards actual negotiations for a COC.
The South China Sea is a vital sea lane where oil and natural gas have been discovered in several areas.
Finalising the code has acquired urgency due to tensions between China and its smaller South-east Asian neighbours with competing claims to the waters, such as the Philippines and Vietnam. Other claimants are Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.
Meanwhile, Vietnam yesterday condemned China's construction and operation of a movie theatre on Woody Island, the largest of the Paracel Islands which are claimed by China, Vietnam and Taiwan.
Efforts to finalise the pact have dragged on for years. In 2002, China and Asean settled for a non-binding declaration calling on claimants to exercise self-restraint in activities that would escalate disputes in the South China Sea.
In May, Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano indicated that the Philippines will not push for a legally-binding COC if it will hamper the negotiations on the code.
Mr Bolivar said the spread of Islamist extremism in South-east Asia would also be high on the agenda at this week's Asean meetings, especially as Philippine troops remain locked in battle with militants in southern Marawi city.
Chief Superintendent Oscar Albayalde, the police chief in metropolitan Manila, said at the same briefing that about 13,000 policemen have been deployed to secure some 1,700 guests who began arriving on Monday.
He said police have been keeping an eye on at least two Muslim enclaves in the capital for former communist hitmen who have purportedly converted to Islam.
"We have not monitored any threat, but we have to put in place target-hardening measures to prevent any untoward incidents, even those not related to the Asean meetings," he said.