MANILA - President Rodrigo Duterte on Friday called for an "open and rules-based international order" in the disputed South China Sea as he met with Southeast Asian leaders in an online summit.
The Philippine leader urged parties with claims in the resource-rich waters to stop stoking tensions in the resource-rich waterway as the world battles the coronavirus pandemic.
China, Taiwan, and Southeast Asian countries Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei, have overlapping claims in the resource-rich waters, with Beijing ramping up island-building and militarization activities to assert ownership over nearly all of the waters.
"Even as our region struggles to contain COVID-19, alarming incidents in the South China Sea occurred. We call on parties to refrain from escalating tensions and abide by responsibilities under international law, notably the 1982 UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea)," Duterte said in in his intervention during the summit.
"We urge all parties to adhere to the rule of law and to their commitments to international instruments, including the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea," he added.
The code of conduct has long been discussed, with China and the ASEAN agreeing in 2002 on a loose set of guidelines in which they committed to "exercise self-restraint" with regard to "activities that would complicate or escalate disputes" in the South China Sea.
But as the world battled the coronavirus pandemic which started in a Chinese province, Beijing has ramped up its militarization of the South China Sea with more infrastructure.
Several Southeast Asian nations, including the Philippines, have protested China's actions in the seaway in light of overlapping claims over the waters.
Duterte, who has fostered closer ties with China, has refused to assert the Philippines' July 2016 victory in a United Nations-backed arbitral tribunal which invalidated China's sweeping claims over the South China Sea.
The Philippine leader, however, said Manila remains committed to working with ASEAN and China "towards the early conclusion of an effective and substantive Code of Conduct in the South China Sea."
"We must not lose sight of strategic interests in the [South] China Sea. We must find innovative ways and exercise flexibility to achieve our common goals," he said.
"ASEAN solidarity and collective action have never been more critical than today," he added.
Indonesia earlier this week called for the resumption of negotiations on a code of conduct with China to ease tensions in the waterway.
Vietnam, who chairs this year's ASEAN Summit, had been expected to push for a harder regional stance on China's rapid militarization in the waters, but this has been scuttled by the coronavirus pandemic.
-with a report from Kyodo News