ASEAN endorses S. China Sea code framework

Katrina Domingo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Aug 05 2017 06:00 PM

Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano leads ASEAN ministers at the plenary session of the ASEAN Foreign Ministers' Meeting Saturday in Manila. Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News

MANILA - Foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have endorsed a framework for a code of conduct (COC) to govern the disputed South China Sea, Foreign Affairs spokesperson Robespierre Bolivar said Saturday.

The framework, an outline that would help structure negotiations towards the crafting of the actual sea code, was taken up at the ASEAN Foreign Ministers' Meeting here more than two months since the document was drafted in China. 

"Ministers endorsed the COC framework for eventual adoption on August 6 at the ministerial meeting with China," Bolivar said in a press conference.

It remains unclear whether the framework could lead to a binding code and to guidelines more stringent than the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), which has failed to prevent tensions and unilateral actions in the contested waters. 

The outline was endorsed 15 years since negotiations between ASEAN and China began, during which time Beijing has continued island-building and militarization activities in the disputed waters. 

A copy of the outline has yet to be released, but a draft earlier seen by ABS-CBN News showed that the parties were to agree to "ensure maritime security and safety" and "freedom of navigation and overflight" in the critical waterway, where about $5 trillion in goods pass through annually. 

Still, consensus among all ASEAN member-nations to have a legally binding framework and COC have yet to be established.

So far, the consensus is for negotiations to produce a "substantive code of conduct," Bolivar said. 

Amid concerns on the legal effect of the code to be negotiated, Bolivar said the Philippines prefers to have one that is binding among the parties. 

Earlier, analysts and former diplomats have expressed doubts on the strength of a sea code that may be crafted out of the framework. 

Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, said the outline may lead to a code that is "no different" from the DOC.

While engaged in talks with sea claimants, China has ignored the Philippines' international arbitration victory that invalidated its sweeping claims to the resource-rich waters. 

The Philippines has meanwhile set aside the disputes as it received billions in funding and aid from China.