MANILA (UPDATE) - Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin, Jr. on Tuesday said disputes in the South China Sea should be resolved peacefully in accordance with international law, citing the 2016 arbitral award as “most helpful in clarifying maritime issues.”
Addressing Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi and ASEAN ministers at the virtual ASEAN Post Ministerial Conference Session with China, Locsin said the award “singles out no one” and “was carefully crafted” that it cannot be used as “a weapon for disputation.”
“A peaceful South China Sea is essential to its protection and sustainable management,” the Philippines' top diplomat said of the waters where his country, China, Taiwan and three other ASEAN countries have competing claims.
“Disputes in it should be resolved peacefully in accordance with international law, including the 1982 UNCLOS and in the recent light of the 2016 Arbitral Award which singles out no one, was carefully crafted as to be unusable as a weapon for disputation; and most helpful in clarifying maritime issues," said Locsin.
All 10 member states of ASEAN and China are signatories to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which provides an arbitration mechanism to resolve disputes.
Locsin pointed out that Scandinavian countries invoke the arbitral award, which invalidated China's sweeping claims in the South China Sea, and Singaporean Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan “has said all that needs to be said impartially on this issue.”
Locsin said the Philippines has “tried to make as much progress” in the negotiations for a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea as the outgoing Country Coordinator for the talks.
The Philippines turned over the country coordinatorship of ASEAN-China dialogue relations to Myanmar during the same virtual meeting.
Myanmar will serve as coordinator for the years 2021 to 2024.
Locsin, in the meeting, defended the quality of COVID-19 vaccines developed in China, saying the death toll could have been worse if many countries did not avail of them.
“Furthermore, no country would make a vaccine that is less than optimal considering the speed at which it had to be invented and widely deployed within China itself,” he said.
“No sane country, would invent less than the best vaccine it can and use them to convince others to use it to their hurt. That would be a weapon of mass stupidity.”
Locsin called for the elevation of ASEAN’s relations with China to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, saying “reality demands it”, given its big economy and “imperative” role for a global post-pandemic recovery.
At the 2019 ASEAN-China ministerial meeting in Bangkok, Locsin declared that China was already the "most important" dialogue partner of the regional bloc.
Thai Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai, whose country chaired ASEAN that year, said then that Locsin's sentiment was shared by many in the 10-member bloc and can safely be regarded as ASEAN's position.
Aside from China, ASEAN's dialogue partners are Australia, Canada, the European Union, India, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, Russia and the United States.
ASEAN elevated its relations with China to "strategic partnership" in 2003, as it did with some of the other dialogue partners in varying years.
"Since the commencement of our dialogue relations in 1991, our engagement with China has deepened and expanded to a whole range of areas of cooperation," Locsin said at the Bangkok meeting.
Alan Chong, an associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, told Kyodo News at the time that "momentarily, China has the upper hand" among the ASEAN dialogue partners because its Belt and Road Initiative was launched as the United States, under the presidency of Donald Trump, adopted a foreign policy shift.
"China is winning because of this unusual combination of factors in its favor," Chong had said.
Despite China's status in ASEAN, Chong observed that "all of these 10 ASEAN countries are also carefully watching what comes with the Chinese economic assistance."
"Who knows that Japan, Australia, and potentially, of course, if I dare say this, a post-Trump United States will all be courted again by ASEAN because they are worried that China will have disproportionate influence?" he said.
"So we'll continue to see this balancing game."
Trump lost to Democrat Joe Biden during the last US elections held late last year.
On Myanmar, Locsin reiterated his call for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, her foreign adviser and other political detainees to pave the way for an effective dialogue among parties.
He also called for the swift implementation of the “Five-Point Consensus” that was reached by the ASEAN Leaders in April following the coup d’etat.
The consensus called for a stop to violence, a constructive dialogue for a peaceful solution, the appointment of a special envoy of the ASEAN chair who will facilitate mediation of the dialogue process, and the provision of humanitarian assistance.
Locsin echoed a call that Myanmar not be excluded from vaccine assistance out of “humanitarian concerns.”
“There is no place for politics where so many lives are at stake,” Locsin said.
“For dialogue amongst involved parties to be effective, we call for the release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and other political detainees and her foreign adviser. Constructive dialogue is what the Five-Point Consensus calls for; it can only happen when everyone concerned is at the table,” he said.
“Foremost — Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the body, soul and face of her people. ASEAN’s survival as a credible partner for all, including China, hinges on this. This finally is the test that all in ASEAN feared but we must face it. Can there be ASEAN centrality based on convenience rather than principle? Convenience by definition can never be principled," he added.
ASEAN comprises Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
- with report from Kyodo News