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On the heels of last week’s sea incident: Duterte to join ASEAN-China relations summit

LEADERS meet virtually during the 24th ASEAN-China Summit held Oct. 26, 2021. — ASEAN.ORG

By Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza, Reporter
and Alyssa Nicole O. Tan

PHILIPPINE President Rodrigo R. Duterte will join a Nov. 22 meeting between southeast Asian nations and China to discuss the future of the region’s relations with Beijing, his office said at the weekend.

The scheduled summit comes less than a week after Chinese Coast Guard ships blocked and used water canons on boats that were carrying supply to a military post on a Philippine-occupied atoll in the South China Sea.

Mr. Duterte and his fellow leaders in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) were invited by Chinese President Xi Jin Ping to the meeting, Malacanang said in a statement.

The ASEAN-China Special Summit to Commemorate the 30th Anniversary of Dialogue Relations aims to chart relations for the next 30 years, the presidential palace said.

The special summit will be co-chaired by Mr. Xi of China and Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah of Brunei Darussalam, the ASEAN chair this year.

Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro L. Locsin, Jr. will be among the officials who will also participate in the meeting.

Mr. Locsin has condemned last week’s incident and asserted that the “acts of the Chinese Coast Guard vessels are illegal.”

“China has no law enforcement rights in and around these areas. They must take heed and back off,” he said in a statement.

Mr. Locsin said he conveyed the country’s “outrage, condemnation, and protest of the incident” to Chinese Ambassador Huang Xilian and to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing.

The country’s foreign affairs department also warned that the incident could jeopardize relations between the two countries.

China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, on the other hand, said the Philippine boats trespassed into Chinese territory.

An international jurist and former judge at the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea said a conciliation agreement on the disputed waters must be made among claimant states “to find a way out of the deadlock.”

“All states belonging to the South China Sea area, broadly speaking, should sit together and try to negotiate and agree upon a follow-up system which will govern this area,” Rudiger Wolfrum said in a forum Thursday evening.

The South China Sea, a key shipping route and an area rich in natural resources, is subject to overlapping territorial claims involving China, Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam.

Mr. Wolfrum cited that the Timor-Leste and Australia joint-venture system, where the agreement was limited to the distribution of benefits rather than sovereignty over the territory, can be used as a model to gain consensus among states concerned.

“It’s an area full of resources and… these resources should be of benefit to all the countries around the South China Sea area,” he said.

A Philippine-based international studies professor, however, said China is unlikely to readily budge from its claim of about 85% of the South China Sea.

“If they’re put in a very disadvantageous position, that’s the only time China will compromise,” Renato C. de Castro, professor at the De La Salle University, told BusinessWorld via Zoom call.

“China is powerful right now and the biggest claimant state, so why offer any concession when you have power and the means to effect that claim,” he said.

“China’s formula of a joint development is that before we start negotiating about joint development, you accept China’s indisputable claim,” he added.

Jay L. Batongbacal, head of the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, told BusinessWorld in an email that while conciliation is a means for settling the disputes, it “is a non-binding mechanism.”

“The process can generate options, and might even come up with innovative recommendations to resolve the disputes, but it still be up to the disputing parties, their political will, and the state of their bilateral and multilateral relations, to act on those recommendations,” he added.

Mr. De Castro said the worst-case scenario for China is if Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam, and the Philippines unite and apply pressure against the economic and military giant.

Mr. de Castro said the Philippines should aim to muster support from other countries while ensuring that it resolves the crisis with China itself.

Following last week’s incident at sea, at least six non-ASEAN nations have expressed support for the Philippines, including the United States with whom the country has a mutual defense treaty.

The others are Japan, Australia, Germany, France, and Canada.

“The United States stands with our Philippine allies in upholding the rules-based international maritime order and reaffirms that an armed attack on Philippine public vessels in the South China Sea would invoke US mutual defense commitments under Article IV of the 1951 US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty,” US Spokesperson Ned Price said in a statement Friday.

During the 24th ASEAN-China Summit held via video conference last Oct. 26, Brunei’s leader said in his 27-point statement that the participating nations “reaffirmed the importance of maintaining and promoting peace, security, stability, prosperity, safety, and freedom of navigation in and overflight above the South China Sea.”

The regional grouping and China signed the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea in its entirety in 2002.

However, negotiations are still ongoing for the more substantive Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, which would be in accordance with international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

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