Manila’s former top diplomat, Albert del Rosario, on Wednesday called for the inclusion of the international arbitration ruling, which nullified China’s massive claim in the South China sea, in a regional code of conduct being hammered out by Southeast Asian nations and Beijing.
As the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China aspire to complete a framework for a code of conduct within the year, Del Rosario said the ASEAN must take into account the Netherlands-based Permanent Court of Arbitration’s July 12 decision that “upheld the rule of law over the waters and global commons of the South China Sea.”
“We believe that the arbitral ruling should be an integral part of the Code of Conduct: we cannot promote the rule of law while ignoring the law as it stands,” the former Philippine foreign secretary said in a speech delivered at an ASEAN-US think-tank conference in Manila.
Del Rosario, who initiated the arbitration proceedings against China, warned that “neither the COC (code of conduct) nor its precursor Framework, however, should legitimize illegal or destabilizing actions in the South China Sea.”
Since Manila filed the arbitration case in 2013, China has scrambled to convert rocks and reefs into man-made islands and has reportedly installed surface-to-air missiles.
China says it owns the South China Sea – a major trading route - nearly in its entirety, undermining the claims of its smaller Southeast Asian neighbors like the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.
The apparent move by China to militarize the waters sparked alarm among Southeast Asian nations, Japan, and western nations led by the United States. They feared that it would increase tensions and hinder freedom of navigation in the area.
“We must not accept the position that China’s completion of its unlawful expansion agenda must be considered as a fait accompli that renders us helpless,” Del Rosario said.
Efforts to finalize the pact have dragged on for years without any sign that it will ever be completed.
In place of a legally-binding code, ASEAN and China in 2002 settled for a mere declaration that calls on all claimants to exercise restraint and stop new occupation in the South China Sea.
However, its non-binding nature and lack of provision to sanction misbehaving claimants, renders the accord useless against aggression.
Michael Klecheski, US Embassy Deputy Chief of Mission, said the conclusion of a code of conduct is an “important” issue for the United States.
“What is really encouraging from my perspective is that the Philippines is very clear that maritime issues within the context of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea are a priority and that is something we share,” he said.
The proposed code of conduct is aimed at preventing the territorial conflicts from degenerating into armed confrontations by enacting rules that would discourage aggression.
Del Rosario said the ASEAN and the international community as a whole “should utilize the principles in the arbitral ruling to move diplomatic engagement forward.”
China, he said, cannot prevent the decision from being part of the universal body of international law.
As the Philippines assumes the rotating chairmanship of the ASEAN this year, Del Rosario said the country “must use this opportunity to assert effective leadership on this issue.”
“Advocating a rules-based regime is who we are, and what we must do. In seizing this opportunity, we can be confident that we will not be short-changing the many generations to come,” he said. —NB, GMA News