ASEAN, China announce start of Code of Conduct talks

MANILA, Philippines – Leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China agreed to start talks on a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said Monday evening, November 13.

This is ASEAN and China's biggest milestone for the past 15 years in crafting a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.

"Leaders of ASEAN and China leaders have agreed to start talks on the Code of Conduct based on the framework approved by the foreign ministers in August," DFA spokesman Robespierre Bolivar said in a statement Monday.

"The Philippines will issue a Chairman's Statement for the ASEAN-China Summit to reflect this fact," Bolivar added.

This comes after the ASEAN-China Summit on Monday, as part of the 31st ASEAN Summit and Related Summits hosted by the Philippines this year.

In a draft statement for the ASEAN-China Summit, both parties vowed not to take the "calmer" situation in the South China Sea "for granted."

"While the situation is calmer now, we cannot take the current progress for granted," said the draft ASEAN Common Statement on ASEAN-China Dialogue Relations for the 20th ASEAN-China Summit on Monday.

The two parties said it "is important that we cooperate to maintain peace, stability, freedom of navigation in and overflight above the SCS, in accordance with international law," including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

'To avoid miscalculations'

"It is in our collective interest to avoid miscalculations that could lead to escalation of tensions," the draft statement said.

"We therefore reiterate our commitment to fully and effectively implement the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the SCS (DOC) in its entirety," it added.

The COC is a document to ensure peace and stability in the South China Sea, building on the non-legally binding DOC.

Before the Duterte administration, the COC was expected to be a legally binding document, but now the Philippines is wary about having a "legally binding" COC.

Philippine Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano earlier said he prefers the COC to be a non-legally binding "gentleman's agreement." It is then unclear how different this will be from the similarly non-legally binding DOC.

The Philippines and China, as well as other claimant countries, remain embroiled in a decades-long dispute over the South China Sea. The Philippines claims parts of the contested waters as the West Philippine Sea.

In July 2016, Manila won a historic case against Beijing over the South China Sea, but Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has chosen to downplay this legal victory for the sake of better ties with China. – Rappler.com

Paterno R. Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II is a senior reporter leading Rappler’s coverage of religion and foreign affairs. He finished MA Journalism in Ateneo and MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email him at pat.esmaquel@rappler.com.

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