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Territorial row presents opportunity for Asean: Aquino
Publication Date : 10-10-2013
The “sea known by many names” in the region that aspires to be one community by 2015 presents the opportunity for all to follow the rule of law.
This was Philippine President Benigno Aquino III’s message at the 23rd Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) Summit where the region’s leaders met to discuss reducing tensions in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) and the implementation of the Asean Community by 2015, among other goals.
Aquino said that while the “sea known by many names” may be considered a problem now, it also “presents an opportunity for Asean and all other parties to collectively exercise the observance of the rule of law.”
The Asean has two more years before the full realisation of an Asean Community, a European Union-like economic bloc that Aquino said would “ultimately lead to the growth and advancement” of the Asean people.
“Clearly, our development as a region cannot be realised in an international environment where the rule of law does not exist. Thus, the recognition of the rule of law ensures that every member state’s interest is upheld and respected. In the context of intertwining interests in the sea known by many names—which is west of the Philippines, east of Vietnam, north of Malaysia, south of China—the challenge that confronts one is a challenge that confronts all,” Aquino said.
Code of conduct
The president stressed the importance of an “expeditious conclusion” of the Asean-China code of conduct and pursuing the arbitration for the “clarification of maritime entitlements,” both legally binding and anchored on international law.
And while a code of conduct has yet to be completed, Aquino urged all parties to adhere to the Declaration of the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) “in all its aspects, especially paragraph 5, which in effect preserves the status quo at the time that the DOC was concluded in 2002.”
“All parties—both Asean and non-Asean, claimant or nonclaimant—have stated: Follow the rule of law. In 2002, we tried to come up with a code of conduct. We failed. We came up with guidelines that became the DOC. What better gift to all our peoples than to follow all these sincere words by meaningful actions?” the president said.
The Philippines’ complaint against China’s incursions into Panatag Shoal (Scarbourough Shoal), a rich fishing ground off Zambales province, and Ayungin Shoal (Second Thomas Shoal) in the Spratly archipelago off Palawan province is pending in the United Nations Arbitral Tribunal.
Aside from the Philippines, three other Asean countries—Brunei, Malaysia, and Vietnam—are laying claim on territories in the West Philippine Sea.
The Philippines occupies five islands in the Spratlys called the Kalayaan Island Group.
China claims nearly all of the sea, including waters close to the shores of the other claimants.
At the Asean-China meeting, Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang emphasised anew China’s preference for bilateral discussions with claimant countries of the South China Sea.
“We all agree that disputes in the South China Sea should be addressed through consultation and negotiation between parties directly concerned. China and Asean countries should work together to maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea and jointly foster a favourable and more enabling environment for a peaceful settlement of disputes. Pending a settlement, parties to the dispute should work actively for joint development,” Li said.
He also said that the “question of the South China Sea” should not affect the overall relations of China and the Asean.
As this year’s Asean chair, Brunei put forward the need to resolve tensions in the disputed waters.
Last year, Cambodia as the Asean chair excluded discussions on the territorial dispute from the summit’s agenda, leading to a failure to release a joint statement, the first in the bloc’s 45-year history.
In his opening remarks at this year’s Asean Summit, Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah said the Asean must “demonstrate its unity and centrality to ensure peace, stability and greater prosperity in the region, in managing the interests of major powers or negotiating trade agreements.”
Bolkiah said this is especially important in the Asean’s efforts to develop a code of conduct for the West Philippine Sea. He also stressed the importance of working with China to implement the DOC.
Both Aquino and Bolkiah hailed the regular consultations between China and the Asean on the code of conduct, which began recently, culminating in a formal discussion last month in Suzhou, China, on the possibility of establishing the rules for managing tensions among the claimants to territory in the sea.
Bolkiah reiterated his statement at the start of the 16th Asean-China Summit, attended by all 10 Asean leaders and Li.
At the meeting with China, Aquino said that “at the core of the Asean-China strategic partnership is the belief that our actions should adhere to the rule of law.”
A meeting between President Aquino and Li seemed unlikely, Communications Secretary Ricky Carandang said on Wednesday.
Carandang told reporters that Aquino met Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Wednesday night.
After the Asean-China Summit, the Asean leaders had their first Asean-US meeting, attended by US Secretary of State John Kerry.
Kerry was filling in for US President Barack Obama, who cancelled his attendance at the summit and at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) meeting in Bali, Indonesia, as well as visits to the Philippines and Malaysia later this week due to the US government shutdown.
Obama’s absence did not affect the US commitment to Asia, Kerry said.
He said the US partnership with Asean remained “a top priority for the Obama administration.”
The Obama administration’s “rebalance” to Asia was a commitment, he said.
“These events in Washington are a moment in politics, not more than that,” Kerry said.