China followed plan on disputed sea, former envoy says

Gillan Ropero, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Aug 09 2017 12:07 AM

Former ambassador to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Orly Mercado on Tuesday said China will agree to the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea because it has already reclaimed and militarized some of the disputed areas.

“They have followed their plan. They have already been able to establish their presence and they have now practically two aircraft carriers that are unsinkable,” Mercado said in an interview with ANC.

“They have de facto control over quite a large area and militarization of existing facilities to which we have not really spoken against loudly,” he added.

Four ASEAN member states--the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, and Vietnam--have overlapping claims with China in the strategic sea route. Beijing has built several man-made islands capable of housing military troops and weapons in the disputed area. 

The Code of Conduct's framework was adopted only last Sunday after 15 years. 

Mercado said this is because the ASEAN does not make a decision until all of its member-states come to an agreement.

“The core of the problem is that ASEAN as a regional organization has membership that doesn’t want to give up any amount of sovereignty. We can have at least a majority view and vote on it if it’s possible,” Mercado said in an interview with ANC.

“Unfortunately that doesn’t exist, everybody has to agree and that’s the reason why nothing gets really agreed upon until everybody is happy,” he added.

Mercado said as long as the voice of the minority is “heard and protected,” the ASEAN should follow the majority rule.

“We can even amend things, instead of a majority vote, the ASEAN minus two or three [that] would accede to the majority view that they do not agree to,” he said.

“If you join an organization, you become part of a fraternity or a club, you’re bound by the rules then you have to respect the rule of the majority,” he added.

Mercado said ASEAN member-states should not rely on the Code of Conduct to resolve the South China Sea dispute.

"I’m looking at Graham Allison’s article and he said, ‘Hope is not a strategy,' that is the last lesson. You’re gonna make your strategy and it’s based on hope that things would go well, maybe it’s not so fine a strategy and there's lot more to be done," he said.

During the 50th ASEAN Foreign Ministers' Meeting in Manila over the weekend, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi gave 2 conditions so talks on the sea code could begin. 

Wang said negotiations could begin this year "if the situation in the South China Sea is generally stable and on the premise that there is no major interference from outside parties."

Cayetano denies 'weaker' ASEAN stand

Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano, meanwhile, disputed assessments that ASEAN foreign ministers came out with a "weaker" statement this year on the South China Sea by leaving out the landmark 2016 international arbitral ruling that favored the Philippines and invalidated most of China's sweeping claims in the disputed waters.   

"There is no doubt we do not like the actions of some players including China in the past, but we need to have progress. If you go back in the past just to scold, it's regressive," Cayetano said Tuesday in a press conference after the conclusion of the 50th ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting.

Although the final joint communique decried militarization in the South China Sea, it neither mentioned Manila's arbitration win nor called for a legally binding code of conduct on the South China Sea.

ASEAN and China agreed on a framework for the code of conduct but the details still have to be negotiated. It's uncertain whether the new code will be legally binding. Cayetano earlier expressed preference for the code to be so. 

"[If we use the arbitration...] we won't make any progress because China already said 'no talks when you mention arbitrations.' Just because a word is not in a statement, that doesn't mean that our stand has changed and we are not working towards that goal," Cayetano said.

The Philippines also wanted to remove the mention of land reclamation in the joint communique, but was convinced otherwise by other ASEAN members, Cayetano said.

"I did not want land reclamation and militarization. It's not reflective of what's happening anymore. They are not reclaiming land anymore so why will you put it here?" he said. - with a report from Katrina Domingo, ABS-CBN News