The 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China have vowed to avoid activities that could escalate tension in the contested South China Sea.
This was agreed on during a special assembly on Monday among foreign ministers of the largely regional alliance and the East Asian giant, according to a statement by the meeting’s co-chairs, Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. and Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi.
Four ASEAN states, including the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, and Malaysia, as well as self-governing Taiwan, have asserted rights in the resource-rich waterway, over which China has sweeping claims.
The Philippines urged China and ASEAN to fully support and extend their sincere cooperation in transforming the South China Sea into a “sea of peace, security, stability and prosperity.”
In related developments:
• To define the maritime zones under the country’s jurisdiction, Senate President Vicente Sotto III on Wednesday filed a bill for the creation of a map of the Philippines’ maritime areas, similar to China’s nine-dash line map.
"Let’s insist on our own maritime zones. It is just a matter of really setting our foot down,” he said.
• Senator Manny Pacquiao said he regretted that President Rodrigo Duterte was misinformed regarding his statement on the West Philippine Sea Issue.
Duterte strongly reacted to the supposed remarks of Pacquiao that the Chief Executive had softened his stance on the disputed waters of the West Philippine Seas compared to when he was running for the presidency.
Pacquiao said he believed firmly that his statement on the WPS reflected the sentiment of the majority of the Filipinos that “we should stand strong in protecting our sovereign rights while pursuing a peaceful and diplomatic solution to the dispute.”
• Armed Forces of the Philippines Chief of Staff Gen. Cirilito Sobejana, visited Pag-asa Island on Monday to uplift the morale and commend the efforts of military personnel securing its community and other areas within the Kalayaan Island Group (KIG) in the West Philippine Sea.
“The AFP will strike a balance between mission accomplishments and looking after the morale and welfare of our men and women,” Sobejana said in a statement Wednesday as he addressed personnel manning the Naval Station Emilio Liwanag in Pag-asa Island.
• Newly-appointed Philippine Navy flag-officer-in-command Rear Adm. Adeluis Bordado pledged to continue all the programs and projects initiated by his predecessor, Vice Adm. Giovanni Carlo Bacordo, to sustain the development of the naval service.
“For the PN to sustain its organizational development and modernization path, it is my responsibility to continue what our outgoing FOIC, Vice Adm. Giovanni Bacordo, and his predecessors have already started," Bordado said in his assumption-of-command speech at the PN headquarters in Manila late Tuesday afternoon.
In a statement, the Department of Foreign Affairs revealed that the ASEAN foreign ministers reiterated commitment for the full implementation of the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC).
They also agreed to resume “the momentum of negotiations” for a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC), which were earlier affected by travel restrictions caused by COVID-19.
The code will determine the only allowable actions countries can take in the South China Sea, they said.
“Sec. Locsin appealed for full support and sincere cooperation to achieve our collective aspiration for the South China Sea to be a sea of peace, security, stability and prosperity; not a moat between the members of the family of Southeast Asian nations but a wide watery highway for trade and connection,” the DFA said.
Claimant nations have pledged to peacefully resolve maritime row in accordance with international law, including the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) adopted in 1982, the statement read. The UNCLOS defines coastal and maritime boundaries and regulates seabed exploration outside territorial claims.
The foreign ministers said they intend to expedite the resumption of the textual negotiations of the COC through virtual platforms, although physical meetings “would remain the primary modality.”
ASEAN has been in talks with Beijing for nearly two decades over the nonaggression pact aimed at preventing clashes from erupting in the disputed waters. Progress has been slow, largely due to resistance from China, which continues to reject the UNCLOS-backed 2016 landmark ruling which invalidated its expansive territorial claims.
Among other issues discussed in the special ASEAN-China meeting are efforts to enhance public health and vaccine cooperation, especially amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The assembly was held in China in celebration of 30 years of dialogue relations between the two parties.
In late May, the Philippines and China also met to discuss the sea dispute during their sixth bilateral consultation mechanism.
The DFA said both sides had “friendly and candid exchanges,” as Manila reiterated its long-standing call for Beijing's full adherence to the UNCLOS and the 2016 tribunal decision.
In his proposed Senate Bill No. 2289, Sotto said the move sought to preserve and protect the country’s sovereign rights to carry out marine and maritime activities in the disputed waters in the West Philippine Sea.
It also seeks to “declare and define the maritime zones” that would still be considered as part of Philippine territory, and “provide for the necessary flexibility in the passage of subsequent laws pertinent to the rights and obligations to which the Philippines is entitled and may exercise over its maritime zones.”
The bill declares that “maritime zones of the Philippines comprise the internal waters, archipelagic waters, territorial sea, contiguous zone, exclusive economic zone and continental shelf.”
Meanwhile, Pacquiao remembered that Duterte promised to go to the West Philippine Sea and plant the Philippine flag when he was campaigning in the 2019 elections.
The President slammed Pacquiao and advised him to “study” first about foreign policy before entering into the picture.
“It’s about foreign policy. I would not want to degrade him but next time he should, diligently study first before coming into the picture," said Duterte.
Sobejana was accompanied by key officers from the AFP General Headquarters and the Western Command (Wescom) during his trip.
He noted the importance of their role in protecting the citizens of KIG and their livelihood, as well as guarding the country’s territories in the West Philippine Sea (WPS).
The AFP recently deployed additional air and naval assets under the operational control of the Wescom in Palawan.
This is to support the National Task Force – WPS, with the Philippine Coast Guard and Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, in performing sovereignty patrols in the WPS.
Before visiting Pag-asa Island, Sobejana met with troops of the 3rd Marine Brigade to extend the AFP’s commendation for keeping Palawan peaceful, stable, and progressive.
Meanwhile Bordado also said “continuity and change” are intertwined concepts that represent the direction of his leadership.
"And as we pursue continuity in our initiatives and in our growth as an organization, change will be an inevitable effect and end-point. PN will be steady on course, full speed ahead,” he added.
Bordado also said he would focus on education and training to boost the Navy's "manpower and physical competence."
This as the PN tries to seek solutions to many of the complex organizational and threat-based problems in the country's security landscape.
Solutions for these need to be "carefully conceived ahead of time," he said.