ASEAN talks 'in right direction'

PEACEFUL RESOLUTION. President Benigno Aquino III makes a fresh push for a code of conduct for the South China Sea at the 22nd ASEAN Summit.

Photo by Malacau00f1ang Photo Bureau

MANILA, Philippines - The first day of the 22nd ASEAN Summit in Bandar Seri Begawan delved right into the most contentious issue facing the region -- the creation of a Code for the South China Sea (West Philippine Sea).  

President Benigno Aquino III said this is "a step in the right direction" towards adopting a legally-binding code of conduct for the South China Sea to prevent conflict over the territory. 

So far, the talks are "sober and calm" and Aquino is optimistic that the time would be ripe for the code of conduct. 

"There might be a consensus that is reached that really pushes the matter forward to really define everybody’s entitlements and obligations. So, instead of being put on a very low priority, it has been put on, in effect -- we're not saying in a dominant position—but it is one of the priority areas and nobody has objected, and everybody was listening and discussing it. So that, I think, is a step in the right direction," he said. 

This is a far cry from last year when the ASEAN -- for the first time in history -- failed to issue a joint communique due to resistance from the chair, Cambodia -- a known ally of China -- over the South China Sea issue. 

This year, Aquino said Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has so far not intervened in the talks but there will be further sessions Thursday. 

The current chair, Sultan of Brunei Hassanal Bolkiah, earlier said one of his priorities during his term would be to see a code of conduct agreed between ASEAN and China.  

"It's really great that it the first night we're here, the very first meeting and it's already been included in the topics. So, we should really be thankful that the whole of the ASEAN is willing to discuss this instead of, you know, putting it on the backburner. That, I think, is already a help," Aquino said. 

"After 10 years, where are we? It's not even just 10 years, this is already the 11th year (that a code of conduct is being pursued), but where are we? Now, more or less at the early part of the year we're already discussing it," he added.

Even if the ASEAN finally arrives at a consensus on the code of conduct, Aquino reiterated that the Philippines will continue to pursue its case against China under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to further resolve the issue through legal means. 

"Our goal is to be clarified. We don't want to heat up the situation. If I say something, they need to answer. So this is a process, let's use all avenues open for all of us to finally come up with something that is definitive: what are your entitlements, what are your obligations," he said. 

"And then have that—have a permanence of... with clarity because that's how you determine how you behave with each other, as opposed to differing interpretations of what constitutes correct behavior," he added. 

The two-day summit ends Thursday, April 25. - Rappler.com