MANILA - The Philippines is "hopeful" that China will abide by its commitment to participate in negotiations on the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea even as Southeast Asian nations push for a legally binding code, a foreign affairs official said Friday.
"We are hopeful that the commitment is still there. The strategic environment is different now as opposed to some years back," Foreign Affairs spokesman Robespierre Bolivar said in a press conference.
In August, Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) foreign ministers and their Chinese counterparts approved a framework for the code of conduct, envisioned to help manage tensions in the disputed South China Sea.
All ASEAN states agreed to rally for a legally binding code, but the Chinese delegates preferred a less forceful pact, Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano said during the ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting here in August.
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 said "a more cooperative spirit in managing disputes in reducing tensions in the area" helps prevent parties from pulling away from the negotiating table.
Ties between Manila and Beijing have grown warmer under the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte as he pursued non-traditional alliances.
This even while China has ignored the Philippines' landmark victory before an international arbitral tribunal, which invalidated Beijing's nine-dash line claim over nearly all of the disputed waters.
ASEAN and Chinese officials are expected to announce the start of formal negotiations on the Code of Conduct next week, during a 2-day summit here.
But actual deliberations on the code "will probably happen sometime next year," Bolivar said.
"(Next year) The Philippines will take over as coordinator of ASEAN-China relations starting next year. The Philippines will have a lead role while negotiations are starting up," he said.