China wants the Philippines to avoid citing its South China Sea arbitration victory in the final mandatory statement that will be issued by President Rodrigo Duterte as current chairman and host of the 30th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit on Saturday, diplomatic and Philippine government sources told GMA News Online.
Chinese embassy officials, in separate meetings with Philippine officials, sought a softer and less hostile language on the South China Sea paragraph in the Chairman's statement, a senior government official, who asked not to be named in the absence of an authority to speak to the media, said Friday.
Chinese official asked the Philippine government to avoid any reference to the July 12, 2016 arbitration decision handed down by an international tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands, which invalidated China's sweeping historic claims over the resource-rich waters.
China is a key ASEAN dialogue partner known to have close ties with some of the member states, including Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos. It has long opposed the mention of sea disputes and the arbitration decision in favor of the Philippines in meetings and statements, saying those are not the proper channels for raising territorial disputes.
China's move to block a stronger statement on the South China Sea disputes and the inclusion of the arbitration decision in the ASEAN Chairman's statement reflects its worries that its massive claim and military build-up in newly constructed artificial islands will be put on the international spotlight.
One of China's man-made islands in Mischief Reef is within the Philippines's 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone under the United Nations convention.
Sources said Chinese officials wants the phrase "full respect for legal and diplomatic processes" removed from the Chairman's statement that Duterte is expected to issue when the ASEAN Leaders Summit concludes on Saturday.
Part of the draft paragraph on the South China Sea issue earlier obtained by GMA News online states that, "We reaffirmed the importance of enhancing mutual trust and confidence, exercising self-restraint in the conduct of activities, avoiding actions that may further complicate the situation, and pursuing peaceful resolution of disputes, including through full respect for legal and diplomatic processes, without resorting to the threat of use of force, in accordance with the universally recognized principles of international law, including the 1982 United nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)."
Another official spoke about the draft statement, also on the same condition of anonymity. "Chinese officials said they do not want any phrase linked to the arbitration case to be included in the South China Sea paragraph," the official said.
It's not clear how Philippine officials responded to Chinese officials, but Duterte told reporters on Thursday that he will not raise the arbitration ruling during the summit proper.
As a win-win solution, the Philippine government, diplomatic sources said, is proposing to either move the phrase “respect for diplomatic and legal processes in other paragraphs of the Chairman statement or coin a new term, such as “respect for the full supremacy of the law.”
The Chinese embassy has yet to comment on the matter as requested by GMA News Online.
Duterte will chair the summit on Saturday, with leaders of 10-nation bloc present. ASEAN groups the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar.
In a dramatic shift in Philippine foreign policy since he assumed office last year, Duterte has taken steps to mend ties with South China Sea rival China and berated Manila's long-time treaty ally, the United States, for criticizing his campaign on illegal drugs.
The Permanent Court of Arbitration last year delivered a sweeping victory to the Philippines, declaring China's claim over nearly the entire South China Sea illegal.
It declared that Beijing violated the rights of Filipinos, who were blocked by Chinese Coast Guard vessels from fishing in the disputed Scarborough Shoal off northwestern Philippines.
Duterte said he will temporarily set aside the ruling to avoid confrontation with China, but vowed to raise it at the right time during his presidency.
A Southeast Asian diplomat privy to the ongoing meetings said the likelihood of mentioning the arbitration decision in the final ASEAN statement is remote.
"The Philippines is under too much pressure," the diplomat, who also asked not to be named, said. Manila will not risk antagonizing China ahead of its first bilateral meeting on territorial disputes in the South China Sea next month, the diplomat added.
The South China Sea encompasses vital sealanes and is believed to be rich in oil and gas and mineral deposits.
Four ASEAN members – Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei – are embroiled in long-simmering territorial disputes with China.
According to the US-ASEAN Business Council, $5.3 trillion of global trade passes through ASEAN waterways, including a large part of the South China Sea. — VDS/KBK, GMA News