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PHL wanted issues resented by China dropped from ASEAN statement

Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano on Tuesday admitted that the Philippines wanted the contentious issues resented by China dropped in the joint ministerial statement of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Cayetano, current chairman of the 10-member ASEAN bloc that met in Manila for its annual ministerial meeting, said he was against the inclusion of the words “land reclamations” and “non-militarization” in the statement because it does not reflect actual situation in the disputed waters.

“It's not reflective of the present situation,” he told a press conference at the end of the weeklong meetings, capped by an expanded regional security forum involving ASEAN’s 17 partners that include foreign ministers from the US, Japan, China, South Korea, Australia, Russia and North Korea.

“They're not reclaiming land anymore, so why will you put it again this year? There's militarization in the area but there's also militarization outside,” said Cayetano, apparently echoing China’s position.

Over the weekend, ASEAN foreign ministers clashed over the wordings on a portion of their joint statement devoted to the South China Sea. ASEAN decides by consensus.

Before it was finalized, Vietnam insisted on a stronger language against China's land reclamations and military activities in the busy sealane.

The communique's language on the South China Sea was markedly stronger than expected as it cited some ministers' concern on the land reclamation and militarization, when it was released a day after the ministers' meeting.

It also included an indirect reference to the the arbitration ruling  won by the Philippines last year which called for "full respect for diplomatic and legal process," although it was placed in another portion of the document where it can't be linked to the disputes.

Reclamation complete

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, at the sidelines of the regional meetings in Manila on Monday, told a news conference that China had already completed its reclamation in the South China Sea.

In an apparent reference to the United States, Wang said: “You can imagine that by all countries, who is the most powerful, who is the most capable and who is the most active in doing militarization and the answer is straightforward.”

Defying Chinese calls for non-claimants to stay out of the disputes, the US, together with Japan and Australia, declared in a joint statement in Manila that it “will continue to fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows.” 

China, which considers the sea disputes a purely Asian issue, is opposed to any foreign intervention, particularly from the US.

Although not a party to the disputes, the US has declared in the past that it is in its national interest to ensure freedom of navigation, unhampered trade and peace and stability in the South China Sea.

Cayetano said the Philippines decided not to push for its position and agreed with the “what the majority wants” and that if he insisted and takes a tough stance, “there’s a possibility that we won’t have a joint communique.” 

“Our team decided to go with language that was more reflective of what was happening in the last year, for example, the concerns,” he said.

“What matters is it reflects what the majority wants, and it reflects more than a majority, because if I insisted that that won't be there, there's a possibility it won't be there, there's a possibility we won't have a joint communique,” Cayetano said.

The Foreign Affairs Chief said the ASEAN ministers’ “very candid, passionate discussions” led to a “very balanced” joint communique.

“It articulates as close as possible how ASEAN as a whole or most or some of its members feel, but it's also a testament to our centrality, meaning much of us compromise,” he said.

“Those who wanted it stronger compromised with weaker. Those who wanted it weaker compromised to make it stronger.”

President Rodrigo Duterte's friendly attitude toward China, which he has visited twice since he assumed the presidency in June last year in high-profile visits, has improved relations between Manila and Beijing. Duterte has credited China for multi-billion investment and infrastructure financing pledges.

Under Duterte's predecessor, President Benigno Aquino III, relations between China and the Philippines turned sour over the territorial disputes. The Aquino administration filed the arbitration case against China a year after Chinese Coast Guard ships took control of the disputed Scarborough Shoal in 2012.

Cayetano said Duterte's decision to set aside the country's arbitration victory against China over South China Sea territories has deescalated tensions and allowed Filipino fishermen to return to the long-disputed waters and stopped the land reclamations. —JST, GMA News