U.S. urges PH: Ensure sea code 'consistent' with international law

MANILA, Philippines – The United States urged the Philippines on Tuesday, July 16, to ensure that the crafting of a code of conduct (COC) in the South China Sea among countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was "fully consistent" with international law.

US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs David Stillwell made the statement after Manila and Washington held the 8th Philippines-US Bilateral Strategic Dialogue (BSD) from Monday, July 15 to Tuesday, July 16.

"As a claimant state in the South China Sea, the Philippines is well-positioned to ensure that the ASEAN code of conduct text is fully consistent with international law, protecting the freedom of navigation and overflight and other lawful uses of the sea for all countries," Stillwell said.

Stillwell added ensuring the sea code was consistent with international law would also protect the rights of other countries with claims in the South China Sea "to pursue security and development arrangements with partners of their choosing."

Both the Philippines and the US said talks saw "reaffirmed commitment" to uphold the freedom of navigation and overflight operations (FONOPs) and "other lawful uses" of the South China Sea. Experts have described these FONOPs as the "most robust enforcement" of the arbitral award since it was won 3 years ago.

Meanwhile, the two allies likewise said it was important to complete the crafting of an "effective and substantive" COC "that would not prejudice the rights under international law of both claimant states and non-claimant states in the SCS."

The COC is a document to ensure peace and stability in the South China Sea and defines how ships and planes can pass through disputed seas without provoking protests. ASEAN leaders and China agreed to start talks on the COC in November 2017. Delays, however, have hampered the completion of the code nearly two decades since they agreed to set it up in 2002.

In June 2019, ASEAN states gathered in Bangkok for a summit where they once again tried to finalize the code. At the time, President Rodrigo Duterte "expressed concern and disappointment" over delays in negotiations over the sea code, though it was not yet finalized once more.

3 years after Hague ruling: The recent statements of both the Philippines and US come 3 years after the Philippines won its case against China at the Hague.

The historic ruling rejected China's 9-dash maritime claim in the area and declared drawing baselines around island groups in the South China Sea was unlawful. It also found China's construciton of islands and fishing practices violated international law on the protection of the maritime environment.

Duterte, however, has refused to enforce the ruling in favor of receiving loans and grants from Beijing. (READ: Philippines loses to China 3 years after Hague ruling)

The 8th BSD is the first one to be held in Manila since the start of the Duterte administration and comes against the backdrop of the Philippines' warming ties with China. The last time a BSD was held in Manila was in January 2015, under the administration of former president Benigno Aquino III. (READ: PH, top U.S. officials hold talks on security, rule of law– Rappler.com

Sofia Tomacruz

Sofia Tomacruz covers foreign affairs, the overseas Filipino workers, and elections. She also writes stories on the treatment of women and children. Follow her on Twitter @sofiatomacruz. Email her at sofia.tomacruz@rappler.com.

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