Talks on South China Sea code of conduct likely "next year": Philippine official

A sandbar as seen from Philippine-held Thitu island in the Spratlys archipelago.
A sandbar as seen from Philippine-held Thitu island in the Spratlys archipelago.PHOTO: AFP

MANILA - Formal talks on the code of conduct (COC), meant to prevent conflicting territorial claims in the South China Sea from erupting into violent confrontations, would likely take place "sometime next year", Philippine foreign ministry spokesman, Robespierre Bolivar, told a news briefing ahead of the Asean summit beginning on Monday (Nov 13).

He said on Friday the Philippines expected the leaders to announce the start of negotiations on the COC.

Finalising the COC has become urgent following a series of skirmishes between China and its smaller South-east Asian neighbours with competing claims to the waters, like the Philippines and Vietnam. Other claimants are Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.

US President Donald Trump is expected to weigh in on the issue when he meets his Philippine counterpart, Rodrigo Duterte, on Monday.

Mr Duterte's spokesman, Harry Roque, told a news briefing on the sidelines of the Apec summit in Danang, Vietnam, today (Nov 11), that it was "safe to assume" that the discussion on the South China Sea will take place because Mr Trump has said that the interest of the United States is to maintain freedom of navigation in crucial waterways.

Senior White House officials have said Mr Trump will reassure Asean that the US has not forgotten South-east Asia, even as he pursues an "America First" policy that has allowed China to broaden its influence in the region.

Mr Duterte on Thursday (Nov 9) said he would "carry the voice of Asean" and tell China's leader, Mr Xi Jinping, "that everybody is worried" over "seas that are now militarised".

Mr Trump and Mr Duterte met for the first time in Danang today (Nov 11).

"It was very warm and cordial," said Mr Roque.

The two leaders will again meet in Manila on Monday for bilateral talks on the sidelines of the Asean summit, which is the last leg of Mr Trump's 12-day swing across Asia.

Mr Roque also said he was confident that Mr Trump, having endorsed his Philippine counterpart's war on drugs, would not bring up the issue.

Mr Duterte has come under intense international criticism for his deadly war on drugs. His crackdown has led to police killing over 3,900 suspects since he took office last year (2016), provoking cries of "crimes against humanity" among rights groups.

Besides tackling the South China Sea disputes, Asean leaders are also set to issue a strong statement concerning North Korea's missiles and nuclear tests, as well as back regional efforts to further roll back violent extremism.

rdancel@sph.com.sg