“Good and bad news” from Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario, now in Bali, Indonesia, for the 44th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) ministerial meeting.
In a phone interview, Del Rosario on Wednesday said the 10-member Asean was finalizing the long overdue implementing guidelines of the 2002 Declaration of the Code of Conduct of Parties (DOC) in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
“We had a long discussion (Tuesday), where everyone agreed to work toward that objective,” Del Rosario told the Inquirer.
Del Rosario, however, said that during the same meeting, the Philippines raised a point.
“That the approval of the implementing guidelines without the framework for ascertaining what is disputed (territory in the contested waters) and what is not disputed will not be practical because of the entry of the ‘nine-dash’ concept of China,” he disclosed.
Early this year, the Philippines filed a formal protest in the United Nations over Beijing’s so-called “nine-dash line” territorial claim over the entire West Philippine Sea.
China has been using the map with nine dashes in asserting its territorial claim over the whole area, including the Spratly group of islands which is believed to be sitting on vast mineral resources.
Aside from the Philippines and China, the Spratlys are also being claimed wholly or partly by Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan.
“We said that the framework sequence should be put in place to complement the implementing guidelines of the DOC,” Del Rosario said.
But “since Asean is already putting the DOC guidelines in place, we have no choice but to go along,” he said.
“Asean is set to issue a joint communiqué shortly. Good, but also not good because the DOC guidelines should not be approved until the framework is incorporated in it,” Del Rosario said.
The DOC was signed by all Asean foreign ministers and Chinese special envoy Wang Yi on Nov. 4, 2002, in Phnom Penh on the sidelines of the 6th Asean-China Summit.
Issued in the context of Asean-China cooperation, the DOC stated the possibility of adopting a code of conduct in the disputed waters.
The other day, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono “exhorted Asean to work faster and be able to deliver on the implementing guidelines of the DOC,” Del Rosario said.
On the maritime dispute, Yudhoyono said he expected to “see progress and explore confidence-building measures.”
“We need to send a strong signal to the world that the future of the South China Sea is a predictable, manageable and optimistic one. And we need to finalize the long overdue guidelines because we need to get moving to the next phase, which is identifying elements of the Code of Conduct. The more we are able to do this, the better we can manage the situation in the South China Sea,” the Indonesian leader said in a statement.
Asean legal experts
Del Rosario also disclosed that “next September, a team of Asean legal experts will look into the country’s proposal to transform the West Philippine Sea from a zone of dispute into a zone of peace, freedom, friendship and cooperation.”
Last month, Del Rosario met with Asean diplomats, whom he asked to “take a common position and, as a family of nations, together seek common approaches in addressing challenges,” including those in the West Philippine Sea.
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has repeatedly said it wants to resolve the Spratlys dispute peacefully, but insisted Beijing has “indisputable sovereignty” over the entire group of islands and their surrounding waters, even those within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.
During the Bali conference, Del Rosario “will advance the country’s interests in the key areas of political-security cooperation, trafficking in persons, human rights, food security, disaster management, migrant workers’ concerns, and other issues of mutual interest with Asean partner-countries,” said a Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) statement.
Later this week, Asean foreign ministers are scheduled to meet with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, as well as their counterparts from China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Timor Leste, and member-states of the European Union.
Raul Hernandez, the new DFA spokesperson, said that “through these ministerial meetings, the Philippines will work toward realizing its goal of promoting peace and security to contribute to the Asean community-building process.”