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Del Rosario: South China Sea code of conduct shouldn’t undermine arbitral ruling

Negotiations for a South China Sea code of conduct should not result in the “denigration” of the arbitral ruling that rejected China’s sweeping claims of sovereignty over the waters, former Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario said Thursday.

Del Rosario, who led the Philippine team that successfully challenged China’s claims before a court in The Hague, urged the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) not to allow itself “to be a rubber-stamp of China’s expansionist ambitions.”

“ASEAN must stand its ground to uphold the rule of law as expressed in the 2016 ruling. ASEAN therefore must also not allow the denigration of the 2016 arbitral ruling,” he said during the inaugural Ambassador Rodolfo C. Severino Jr. Lecture organized by the Ateneo de Manila University and the Carlos P. Romulo Foundation for Peace and Development.

“By asserting what is right, ASEAN will ensure its independence and relevance in maintaining peace and security in the South China Sea. To do otherwise would make ASEAN lose its credibility before the world by refusing to stand for the rule of law.”

Del Rosario said China must be prevented from “attaining its goal to supplant and undermine the 2016 ruling.”

“Therefore, with regard to the code of conduct in the South China Sea, the Philippines must be vigilant. ASEAN too must be collectively vigilant,” he said.


China’s claim to nearly the entire South China Sea, including areas under the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, was declared illegal by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in July 2016.

The tribunal, however, has no power of enforcement as China repeatedly refused to recognize the decision.

“Beyond merely complementing the 2016 ruling, the code of conduct should implement the ruling,” Del Rosario said. “The ruling already clarifies the maritime rights and entitlements of the countries surrounding the South China Sea.”

Maritime law expert Jay Batongbacal, however, sought to temper expectations about the negotiations.

“We need to consider possibly that we will end up only with incident management rather than dispute management. After all, the disputes themselves are multi-dimensional,” he said.

“Scaling down the code of conduct perhaps to just addressing the incidents at sea would be more productive at this time and the different parties can come up with the corresponding negotiating strategies and positions for each particular area or possible incidents and use that to build up an eventual future code,” he added.

The Philippines was previously the dialogue coordinator between China and the ASEAN on negotiations for a code of conduct aimed at preventing disputes from escalating into an armed conflict.

Last November, President Rodrigo Duterte told fellow ASEAN leaders in a virtual summit that territorial disputes must be resolved peacefully and in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

“We are committed to the immediate conclusion of a substantive and effective Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. And if I may add, it has been a long time and it is a long wait,” he said.

Aside from the Philippines and China, the other claimants include Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei and Malaysia. Taiwan and China are not ASEAN members. 

The Philippines refers portions of the South China Sea as West Philippine Sea. — RSJ, GMA News