MANILA - Foreign ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) agreed to push for a legally binding code of conduct in the disputed South China Sea, Philippine Foreign Affairs spokesman Robespierre Bolivar said Monday.
"There was an agreement among ASEAN foreign ministers that the preference is for a legally binding code of conduct," Bolivar said in a press conference a day after ASEAN and its Chinese counterparts approved the code's framework that would serve as a guide during official negotiations.
Bolivar confirmed the consensus among ASEAN ministers hours after the United States, Australia and Japan came out with a joint statement calling for a set of rules that will be "legally binding, meaningful, effective, and consistent with international law."
The three countries have no claims in the South China Sea but have been criticizing China's sweeping claims that may pose a threat to freedom of navigation and overflight in the area where about $5 trillion in goods pass through annually.
"We do not see any dissonance with what they said and what ASEAN said last night," Bolivar said referring to the regional bloc's joint communique that decried militarization in the South China Sea, but didn't mention the approved framework as legally binding.
The joint communique also didn't cite a 2016 arbitration ruling that invalidated most of China's maritime claims based on its nine-dash line map.
Four ASEAN members--the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, and Vietnam--have conflicting claims with China in the strategic route. Beijing has built several man-made islands in the area capable of housing military troops and weapons.
Bolivar clarified that the Philippines preferred to have a binding code, contrary to some reports that the summit's host country was teaming up with Cambodia on the issue and siding with China.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has stated on many occasions that it will raise Manila's arbitral victory with relevant sides at the proper time, Bolivar said.
"More than that, the code of conduct must be effective, meaning adhered to by all parties," he added.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Sunday said formal negotiations with Southeast Asian nations on the disputed waters will begin this year provided that "outside parties" will not meddle in the talks.
Should the framework be a non-binding declaration, it will be "no different" from the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea that failed to prevent tensions in the area, Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, earlier told ABS-CBN News.
“Such an agreement is only a political statement and does not create any binding commitment beyond the parties’ intentions and actual actions. It will be no different from the 2002 DOC in addressing the South China Sea tensions,” Batongbacal he said.