PH hopeful ASEAN issues 'G7-like' statement vs China

MANILA, Philippines – President Benigno Aquino III is set to travel to Malaysia for the 26th ASEAN Summit. His main agenda when he attends: China’s aggressive reclamation activities in disputed territories in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).

On Monday, April 20, Foreign Affairs Assistant Secretary Luis Cruz told reporters that “the reclamation issue will be the main topic that the President will raise during the agenda item of the Retreat on discussions of regional and international issues.”

He also said the Philippines is aiming “for a collective statement, this time on the issue of the reclamation of some features in the South China Sea.” (READ: China reclamation meant to 'define' 9-dash line – PH)

“We are always hopeful that, like the G7 meeting, for example, they issued a very strong statement on this one. The President has already said that this is not a bilateral issue, this is not a regional issue, but the world should really be concerned on this issue because of several things, not only the freedom or the safety of navigation, but also the damage that is being done to the marine environment in the area,” Cruz told reporters.

The statement comes 3 days after the Group of Seven (G7) – foreign ministers from the world’s 7 most industrialized countries – slammed China's artificial islands in the disputed West Philippine Sea and called for a binding Code of Conduct in the area.

At the same time, they backed the ASEAN Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, a non-binding document signed in 2002 to counter provocative actions in the disputed waters.

Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States, as well as the High Representative of the European Union are members of G7.

This, as China continues reclamation activities in the West Philippine Sea where it is building a runway that will change the regional security situation.

Talks continue

But while Cruz expressed hope ASEAN would come together with a strong statement against China, he also emphasized that “this is not a negotiation among leaders.”

“The format of the Retreat is that the leaders are given an opportunity to express their views on regional security issues, including the South China Sea, but it is not a negotiation conference," he said, tempering expectations.

"So we will leave it to the chairman to say at the end of the summit on what transpired during the two-day meeting, especially what the leaders would have said in as far as the issue of the South China Sea is concerned."

Cruz also said that, currently, meetings with the joint working group focused on the Code of Conduct are ongoing.

“At this point in time, I think the level of discussion of that joint working group is to identify the elements that can easily be achieved or agreed upon, or what they call the ‘low-hanging fruits.’ An example would be the opening of this hotline, you know, and then activities on search and rescue operation,” he said.

Possible meet with Vietnam

With ASEAN Integration due to take place in December, one of Malaysia’s focus in hosting the summit is to discuss priorities. Cruz emphasized, however, that the integration will continue to be a work in progress.

“Let me make it clear at this point that it is not the end-all and be-all of ASEAN community building exercise. Let us refer to it as a milestone or a reference point because, as we are having this press conference this morning, there is already a group – a committee, which we call the ASEAN high-level task force – that is already drafting the successor plan for post-2015 vision,” he said.

“So, for the next 10 years, this high-level task force is already identifying the next set of plans essentially to deepen integration of ASEAN…. So let us consider this ASEAN integration only as a milestone or as a reference point, but while we are saying that, we are already planning for the post-2015 vision.”

During Aquino’s visit to Malaysia, he will first travel to Kuala Lumpur and then Langkawi, and is expected to have about 7 engagements – 3 with his fellow ASEAN leaders and 4 with the representatives of the private sector.

His meetings are as follows:

Cruz also said there is a possibility Aquino will have a bilateral meeting with Vietnam, which is also a claimant country. (READ: Philippines, Vietnam form team to boost alliance)

“Vietnam has already requested us, so we are processing this. It has not come to the attention of President yet, but we will bring this to the attention of the President, that we indeed have received this request,” he said. (READ: Can the Philippines and Vietnam be strategic partners?)

“But let me say that, you know, the schedule is very tight, which does not really allow for an extensive bilateral consultation. But this does not preclude the leaders from having a pull aside meeting in between sessions or when they are seated together during dinners or lunches.” –