MANILA -- Southeast Asia should "define its own leadership" and oppose Beijing's island-building and militarization of the South China Sea despite its strong economic ties with the regional power, former Foreign Secretary Albert Del Rosario said.
Del Rosario expressed concern that "fear" of "economic retaliation" was keeping the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) "from standing up on important issues" involving its largest trading partner.
"I believe that ASEAN is adrift," Del Rosario told a gathering a diplomats and policy experts in Makati City Thursday.
"Our region needs to define its own leadership. To do otherwise is to cede the initiative to an outside power."
Under the Philippines' chairmanship, an ASEAN statement dropped any reference to land reclamation and militarization during a summit in Manila last April.
China and ASEAN are set to adopt the framework of a code of conduct to help manage disputes in the South China Sea during a meeting of foreign ministers in Manila on Saturday.
Del Rosario said the arbitral ruling rejecting the basis of Beijing's expansive claims over the vital waterway should form an "integral" part of the proposed code.
"Our region cannot promote the rule of law while ignoring the law as it stands," he said. "ASEAN should stress that it is nobody's backyard or exclusive preserve."
Del Rosario warned against "weighty financial agreements" between China and the Philippines under President Rodrigo Duterte.
Beijing has promised billions of dollars in aid and investments as the Philippines softened its stance on the territorial dispute.
"There is little to separate our political disagreements with China and any financial relationship. There is no firewall that separates the two," Del Rosario said.
"We cannot trade away our sovereignty or sovereign rights, and we should not give even the impression that we are willing to do so."
The framework is set to be approved 15 years after China and ASEAN promised not to "escalate disputes" in a non-binding declaration.
In between, China has built artificial islands, with runways and military equipment, in the disputed waters despite protests from other claimant countries such as the Philippines and Vietnam.
The landmark ruling of the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration clarified maritime entitlements, based on a case filed by the Philippines against China.
But Beijing rejected the decision, which invalidated the legal basis of its 9-dash line claim over nearly the entire South China Sea.
Failure to protest China's activities "may be taken as tacit acquiescence," said Jay Batongbacal, director of the UP Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea.
Batongbacal warned the proposed code of conduct might only "legitimize" China's island-building and militarization.
A draft of the framework showed China and ASEAN committing to the "full and effective implementation" of the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct (DOC) of Parties in the South China Sea.
"Considering our experience with the (declaration), which also has similar provisions, mere reiteration at this time--after a major change in the status quo--gives the new normal a color of legitimacy," said Batongbacal, who helped prepare the initial DOC draft.