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Ex-DFA chief bats for PHL-Vietnam consultation on South China Sea

Former Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario on Friday proposed a joint consultation between the Philippines and Vietnam on key provisions of a proposed code of conduct in the disputed South China Sea.

“Clearly, it would be a constructive move to consult with Vietnam to give us an opportunity to share and appreciate each other’s views which could lead to an agreed plan of action that is beneficial not only to both countries but to others as well,” Del Rosario said in a statement sent to GMA News Online.

Such move sends a signal that smaller claimant countries can bond together to increase their clout and collective strength in negotiating for a stronger text amid China's assertive territorial claims in the South China Sea.

Manila and Hanoi face a common security concern in the South China Sea: China's increasingly aggressive postures to assert territorial claims that the two Asian nations say have impinged on their fishing rights and obstructed efforts to explore undersea hydrocarbon resources well within their territorial waters recognized under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

A Reuters report earlier revealed that Vietnam is pushing for several provisions in the draft code, such as the banning of an Air Defense Identification Zone, clarifying maritime entitlements in accordance with international law, and prohibition of military drills in the South China Sea with outside powers. These proposals are likely to be rejected by China.

Vietnam also opposed China’s move to exclude foreign oil firms by limiting joint development deals to China and South East Asia.

Del Rosario said Vietnam’s positions are “areas of major importance which should be fully supported not only by the Philippines but by ASEAN as a whole.”

“An ASEAN consensus on the aforementioned specifics, if achieved, will serve to demonstrate to the world that the 10 ASEAN states as a solid body are willing to strongly uphold its centrality and not allow itself to be bullied and bribed,” Del Rosario said.

Under the administration of Benigno Aquino III, the Philippines and Vietnam in 2016 signed a strategic partnership agreement, which aims to increase their cooperation on several fronts, including defense and maritime security as both nations confront China’s expansionist moves in the South China. The accord remained dormant as the Philippines under Aquino’s successor, Rodrigo Duterte, sought friendly ties with Beijing in exchange for investments and aid.

China claims a huge swathe of the South China Sea as part of its territory, but the Permanent Court of Arbitration tribunal in The Hague invalidated this claim in July 12, 2016 following a case filed by the Philippines in 2013.

Beijing has ignored and belittled the ruling, maintaining it has “indisputable” and “historical” claim over nearly the entire waters even as it encroaches on the territories of its smaller neighbors like the Philippines.

Undersea gas, oil and mineral deposits have been discovered in several areas in the South China Sea. China has also claimed and developed some features within the West Philippine Sea.

Despite Philippine Duterte’s friendly overtures to China, Beijing’s aggressive stance in the tense waters persisted as it beefed up its reclamation activities in disputed areas and transformed previously submerged features into artificial islands with multi-level buildings and runways. It has also installed surface-to-air missiles in these areas, triggering concerns from countries, such as the US, Japan and Australia.

The Duterte administration has avoided criticizing such actions, but insisted that it will not concede a single inch of Philippine territory to China, which claims “indisputable sovereignty” over 90 percent of the waters.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in a visit to Manila in October said China wants to speed up negotiations for a code of conduct  and have it finalized within the Philippines’ three-year term as dialogue coordinator between Beijing and Southeast Asian nations.

China and the 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations, of which the Philippines and three other South China Sea claimants – Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei - are members, announced agreement on a single draft South China Sea Code of Conduct negotiating text. Other members of ASEAN are Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar.

The draft, which will serve as the basis for negotiations of the code, is expected to propel China and ASEAN to reach agreement on a set of formal guidelines in the resource-rich waters as efforts to finalize the accord has dragged on for 16 years.

Manila assumed the role of country coordinator in August this year and will lead the dialogue until 2021.

A regional code of conduct aims to prevent conflicting territorial claims in the vast potentially-oil rich region from erupting into violent confrontations or worse, an economically-devastating major conflict.

ASEAN has long held the position that the code of conduct must be legally-binding, but China opposes this. It’s not clear how this basic difference will affect progress of future efforts by both sides to negotiate the code.

“We will need to exercise utmost vigilance in ensuring that the COC is not utilized by Beijing for the purpose of protecting what has been declared as being unlawful by the arbitral tribunal which is now an integral part of international law,” Del Rosario said. —NB, GMA News