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PHL deplores ASEAN conduct on issuing traditional statement

The Philippines deplored on Friday the Association of South East Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) failure to issue its traditional joint statement at the conclusion of high-level talks in Cambodia, an unprecedented moment of disunity in the bloc’s 45-year history. Manila blamed Cambodia – a known Chinese ally – this year’s host of the ASEAN rotating chairmanship, for blocking any mention of the Philippine territorial row with China in Bajo de Masinloc, also known as Scarborough Shoal, which started last April.   “The Chair has consistently opposed any mention of the Scarborough Shoal at all in the Joint Communiqué and today announced that a Joint Communiqué ‘cannot be issued,’” Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert Del Rosario said in a press conference in Manila.   The South China Sea issue had been a test to ASEAN’s unity. While some members like the Philippines and Vietnam are aligned with the United States and other Western countries calling for a rules-based and multilateral approach in solving the disputes, others members aligned to China like Cambodia and Laos toe Beijing’s line either by not openly backing a multilateral approach or opposing it out right.   ASEAN groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.   The South China Sea- an international waterway where more than 50 percent of the world's merchant fleet tonnage passes each year – is believed to be rich in oil and gas deposits.   It is claimed in part or in whole by China, Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan. Among all the claimants, China harbors the most ambitious claim, laying ownership to nearly the entire sea even those that overlap with other country’s territories, including the Philippines.   Del Rosario said he raised the Bajo de Masinloc conflict in the ASEAN Foreign Ministers meeting in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh last Monday and had wanted the discussions to be mentioned in the joint communiqué, but Cambodia continuously rejected any mention of the shoal dispute in any of the grouping’s statement.   He said he discussed the situation so that the dispute between Philippines and China is "reflected in the Joint Communiqué." Several ASEAN member-states and the ASEAN Secretariat supported the Philippines position since it was taken up in the meetings, he said. A multilateral conflict   Speaking to reporters after returning from Cambodia, Del Rosario noted the territorial row in the South China Sea “is not a mere bilateral conflict with a northern neighbor but a multilateral one and should therefore be resolved in a multilateral manner.”   Amid friction among the bloc members in Cambodia, Del Rosario said progress was made when the ASEAN have finalized key elements they want to include in a proposed Code of Conduct with China.   A code of conduct in the South China Sea is aimed at preventing the competing claims from erupting into armed confrontation.   He also said the disagreement will impede negotiations for a binding code of conduct in the West Philippine Sea.   “I don’t think that has an adverse effect,” he said. “I think all of us are looking forward to discussion on those fundamental elements and we’re looking forward to an early beginning of those consultations,” Del Rosario noted.   “The Philippines declares that the ASEAN consensus reached during the senior officials meeting last June on the elements of a Code of Conduct on the South China Sea already clearly underscores the fact that the Asean is pursuing the resolution of the dispute in a multilateral manner and not in a bilateral fashion – the approach which its northern neighbor has been insisting on,” Del Rosario said. Urgent attention   Following this week’s approval of the code’s main elements, the ASEAN would now negotiate with China to finalize a legally binding accord.   Manila had long maintained that the situation in the South China Sea deserves urgent attention from ASEAN and the international community as it affects commerce and shipping in the region.   Del Rosario had stressed in the meeting that conflict must only be resolved through international law, specifically through the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNLCOS).   UNCLOS allowed coastal states to explore, exploit and develop areas within its 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone, and was signed by the Philippines, China and 162 other states.   “If Philippine sovereignty and jurisdiction can be denigrated by a powerful country through pressure, duplicity, intimidation, the threat of use of force and economic pressure, the international community should be concerned about the behavior of this member-state which has negative implications to the overall peace and stability and freedom of navigation in the West Philippine Sea,” Del Rosario said.   China’s “creeping imposition of its claim” over the entire sea, “could further escalate into physical hostilities which no one wants,” the Foreign Affairs chief noted.   “This puts in greater jeopardy the remarkable economic dynamism of our region which was made possible by the relative peace and stability that prevailed in the past years,” he added. — VS, GMA News