Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte should use the opportunity of meeting his counterparts from ASEAN and East Asia Summit participants this week to show them that he means business. He should recall that it has been 12 years since ASEAN called for a legally-binding code of conduct in the South China Sea to prevent existing disputes from escalating into armed conflicts.
At least two possible regional security proposals could be raised by the Philippines in Vientiane. To overcome the protracted negotiations on the proposed code of conduct in the South China Sea, involving all ten ASEAN countries plus China, the Philippines could pursue a new track in two stages. The initial stage is for the four ASEAN claimants to negotiate and enter into a legally-binding code of conduct first, namely Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines and Vietnam. If not all four are ready, then we could start with a Philippines-Vietnam code of conduct.
Once it has entered into force, the code should be open for accession by all other states, especially all those traversing the South China Sea for commercial, civilian and military purposes in the exercise of the freedom of the high seas, including China, Japan and the United States. It would be like the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation which had been ratified by 22 countries since it was opened for accession, including all the permanent members of United Nations Security Council. It need not be strictly an ASEAN-China agreement.
Parties to the code of conduct should carry out cooperative activities like marine environmental protection and scientific research, safety of navigation, search and rescue operation, and combating transnational crime, including trafficking in illicit drugs, piracy and armed robbery at sea, and illegal traffic in arms. Pending the resolution of overlapping claims and disputes, these are very useful confidence building measures contemplated for countries in similar situations bordering enclosed or semi-enclosed seas under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
The second security agenda is our defense relationship with the United States. With the objective of building trust and confidence, instead of generating doubts and uncertainties, President Duterte should propose to President Barack Obama for our two countries to consider updating the 1951 Philippines-United States Mutual Defense Treaty by expanding its protection coverage from the Pacific to the Asia Pacific.
That Treaty contemplates that both parties would act to meet the common dangers whenever in the opinion of either of them the territorial integrity of the parties is threatened by external armed attack in the Pacific. Since the United States’ island territories in the Pacific are included (in addition to metropolitan territories), it is only fair for the Philippines to insist that Bajo de Masinloc or Panatag Shoal in the West Philippines Sea should be covered as well by the Treaty.
The Philippines Baseline Law of 2009 declares Bajo de Masinloc as regime of islands where the Philippines exercises sovereignty and jurisdiction consistent with Article 121 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Historically, it was included in the 281-year-old Murillo map of the Philippines.
How should we get this done? Obviously, these specific ideas are not on the agenda of the ASEAN and East Asia Summit. Our diplomats know that specific proposals meant for specific countries should be discussed at bilateral meetings. It is very important therefore for President Duterte to have the opportunity to meet the concerned leaders individually.
Setting strategic directions is a serious matter that takes time to generate support, momentum and agreement. Therefore, we cannot rely on the summitry alone. We need to follow through in the capitals of friendly states. We cannot afford to stand still because the situation is fast evolving. What is important is that we continue to build our own defense capability and to search for strategic solutions that could make significant difference in influencing the future of security that we want for our country and the Asia Pacific region.
About the author:
Jun Abad is Senior Fellow of the Institute for Strategic and Development Studies (ISDS) in the Philippines and former director of the ASEAN Regional Forum at the ASEAN Headquarters in Jakarta. He is the author of “The Philippines in Asean: Reflections from the Listening Room.” The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect the views of the organizations of his affiliation.