MANILA – None of the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) raised China’s island-building and reclamation activities in the disputed South China Sea at the just concluded summit in Manila, a Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) official said Tuesday.
In a press briefing in Malacañang, Zaldy Patron, Executive Director of the DFA Office of ASEAN Affairs said no one among the 10 ASEAN member states touched on the issue during their Manila meet.
This even as four ASEAN members- Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines- are among parties in the six-way dispute, where China and Taiwan contend for their respective claims.
“During the plenary and summit there was no leader that mentioned inclusion or made reference to the land reclamation, militarization and arbitration. That was what we are trying to reflect in the chairman’s statement,” Patron told reporters.
ASEAN leaders were in Manila last week for the annual summit of the 10-nation bloc, where pressing regional issues were discussed. To the dismay of some observers, the South China Sea issue was downplayed during the meet, as this year’s ASEAN chair Manila pursued warmer ties with Beijing.
The joint statement of ASEAN leaders, released early Sunday in the wake of the summit, was notably silent on China's defeat to the Philippines before the Hague-based arbitration court, which invalidated the basis of Beijing's sweeping claims over the South China Sea.
China has ignored the landmark ruling, asserting "indisputable sovereignty" over the waters.
The statement also avoided mention of Beijing's island-building activities in the disputed waters and of Chinese militarization of these islands.
Patron said the non-inclusion of these thorny matters in the ASEAN Chairman’s statement only meant to reflect what took place during the leaders’ meeting.
What the leaders highlighted, he explained, were efforts by the ASEAN and China to strengthen cooperation and repair ties that have been frayed by the sea row.
“We want to reflect as much as possible the discussion, as accurately as possible, of the leaders. There was no one who strongly pushed or mentioned anything about land reclamation and militarization,” Patron said.
“On the other hand, the leaders highlighted the improving relations between ASEAN member states and China, and the need to conclude the framework for the code of conduct. That was the emphasis given," he added.
Patron’s statements contradicted earlier reports that several ASEAN leaders had reportedly wanted to include "land reclamation and militarization that may further complicate the situation" in the Chairman's statement, the concluding document at every summit.
Meanwhile, Patron said efforts ASEAN and China continued to craft the framework of a binding code of conduct among claimant parties in the South China Sea.
“They are still negotiating. There are certain elements, proposal, on how to make this framework really substantive. They are talking about certain guidelines to avoid tension within the area,” Patron said.
“We cannot disclose yet these elements because they are going to be negotiated.”
President Duterte had said at a concluding press briefing on the summit Saturday night that Asean leaders hoped to finish the code before the end of the year.
The binding code is envisioned to replace a 2002 declaration on conduct, which has failed to stop incursions and ease tensions in the waters.
With Manila's hosting of ASEAN this year, Duterte was repeatedly urged to raise the maritime dispute to his fellow leaders. But the Philippine leader insisted that the arbitral ruling was a "non-issue."
Since assuming the presidency, Duterte has realigned Manila's foreign policy closer towards China and veered away from its usual ally the United States.