PHNOM PENH, Cambodia—President Aquino is happy about the progress of talks on territorial disputes involving China, the Philippines, and other Southeast Asian countries at the 21st summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), so much so that he doesn't feel ill most of the time.
Aquino, who had fever when he left Manila and still has cough and colds, said attending the summit despite not feeling well—and defying his doctor’s advice for him to rest—was worth it because of recent developments in discussions on the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) issue.
“Ang inaalala ko lang, baka naman nag-adrenaline surge (I’m worried I might have had an adrenaline surge),” he told reporters in jest at a briefing Monday night.
“Masyadong natuwa, hindi ko lang nararamdaman, at pagbalik ko sasabihin ng doktor, ‘Ikaw, hindi ka nakikinig.’ (I may have been too happy and not felt that I was sick, and when I return home, the doctor would say, ‘You didn’t listen.’)”
The President said he was particularly happy that other ASEAN members, even those with no claims to the South China Sea, are now pushing for formal talks to craft a code of conduct for the disputed area.
The Philippines envisions a code of conduct that will bind it and South China Sea’s other claimant states: China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei. This, President Aquino said, is like an “enabling law” that will concretize the principles of the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea.
Mr. Aquino saw progress in this month’s summit compared to discussions among ASEAN foreign ministers in July, which ended without a joint statement that would have mentioned the sea disputes.
“May consensus na pag-usapan na nang pormal para mapalapit na tayo sa punto na mailalabas ‘yan (There’s already a consensus to hold formal talks so we can move closer to the point of adopting a code of conduct),” he said.
“The rules will tell everybody what is expected of them, what they can do, what they cannot do. That promotes stability. That is for everybody’s interest,” the President added.
In almost all the meetings he has attended so far, President Aquino raised the issue of maritime security even without specifically mentioning the West Philippine Sea. He called for a peaceful resolution to territorial disputes through international law, especially the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
The Philippines wants to bring the issue to the international stage. China, on other hand, rejects a multilateral approach and prefers one-on-one discussions with each of the South China Sea’s claimant countries.
During a meeting on Monday, President Aquino contradicted Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s statement that ASEAN members had a consensus not to “internationalize” the issue and settle it with China alone.
He said the Philippines seeks to resolve it through various means available in accordance with international law, and not limit its options within the “ASEAN route.”
Cambodia, this year’s ASEAN chair, is a close ally of China. It was accused of blocking efforts to come up with a joint statement by ASEAN on the sea dispute last July because of China’s influence.
At the ASEAN’s meeting with US President Barack Obama on Monday, President Aquino stressed the need to include other countries like the US in the discussions.
“While we are all aware that the US does not take sides in disputes, they do have a strategic stake in the freedom of navigation, unimpeded commerce, and the maintenance of peace and stability in the South China Sea,” he said.
In a separate meeting of ASEAN leaders with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, President Aquino said the Philippines looks to China to set an example of “wise and peace-seeking leadership” as it continues to become a dominant economic and military power.
“After all, a China that is benevolent and generous towards smaller neighbors can enhance stability in the region and allow each of our nations to sustain the growth we have so have experienced despite global uncertainties,” he said.
On Tuesday, President Aquino will join ASEAN leaders in the East Asia Summit, their last meeting along with leaders of the US, China, Japan, South Korea, Russia, India, Australia, and New Zealand.