South China Sea

Manila expects framework of code of conduct soon

Philippine Foreign Secretary says China-Asean document will be ready by middle of this year

The Philippine and Chinese coast guards agreed at a meeting last month to step up maritime cooperation.
The Philippine and Chinese coast guards agreed at a meeting last month to step up maritime cooperation.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

The Philippines is confident that a "framework" of a code of conduct meant to avoid conflicts in the South China Sea will be concluded between Asean and China by the middle of the year.

In a news briefing yesterday, Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay said that Manila, having assumed chairmanship of Asean on Jan 1, "will intensify efforts for the completion of a framework of the (code of conduct) during the first half of the year".

He said this "framework" will contain "key elements and principles" of a code of conduct.

Asean and China have been holding talks on a code of conduct to ease tensions arising from competing claims over the South China Sea for more than a decade.

China claims nearly all of this strategic waterway, through which US$5 trillion (S$6.6 trillion) in ship-borne trade passes every year. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan are also claiming parts of these waters.

These overlapping claims have led to skirmishes among the coast guards and fishing boats of China, the Philippines and Vietnam.

Even Indonesia, which is not a party to this regional dispute, has had to confront the presence of Chinese fishing boats within its borders, near the contested waters.

Over the past few years, China has been raising the stakes, as it transforms spare reefs and rocks in the South China Sea into islands big enough to accommodate runways as well as harbours for submarines and large naval ships.

Last year, surveillance photos showed that China had deployed anti-aircraft guns and other weapon systems on some of these islands.

Asean has sought to ease tensions by convincing China to agree to a legally binding code of conduct involving a dispute-settlement mechanism among other things.

But talks on a code of conduct have been slow, as consensus among Asean's 10 member states has been elusive.

China has also insisted on conditions that have made it difficult to reach a compromise.

It wants, for instance, to keep the United States out of the South China Sea, and insists that any code should not hinder its naval patrols.

But this time, Mr Yasay said, China is fully on board.

"They are part of the discussions now. We are sitting down with China. China will be approving it. It is an Asean-China document," he said.

Analysts say Beijing's new level of cooperation stems from the Philippines' assurance that it will not raise, during its chairmanship of Asean, a ruling from an international arbitration court that struck down China's claims over the South China Sea.

Yesterday, Mr Yasay reiterated that promise. "We are not going to raise this issue, or rather this matter, or this decision… There is really no useful benefit," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 12, 2017, with the headline 'Manila expects framework of code of conduct soon '. Subscribe