MANILA - Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano on Tuesday rebuffed observations that Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) foreign ministers came out with a "weaker" statement this year on the South China Sea by leaving out the landmark 2016 international arbitral ruling that favored the Philippines and invalidated most of China's sweeping claims in the disputed waters.
"There is no doubt we do not like the actions of some players including China in the past, but we need to have progress. If you go back in the past just to scold, it's regressive," Cayetano said in a press conference after the conclusion of the 50th ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting here.
Four ASEAN member states--the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, and Vietnam--have overlapping claims with China in the strategic sea route. Beijing has built several man-made islands capable of housing military troops and weapons in the disputed area.
Although the final joint communique decried militarization in the South China Sea, it neither mentioned Manila's arbitration win nor called for a legally binding code of conduct on the South China Sea.
ASEAN and China agreed on a framework for the code of conduct but the details still have to be negotiated. It's uncertain whether the new code will be legally binding. Cayetano earlier expressed preference for the code to be so.
"[If we use the arbitration...] we won't make any progress because China already said 'no talks when you mention arbitrations.' Just because a word is not in a statement, that doesn't mean that our stand has changed and we are not working towards that goal," Cayetano said.
"Politicians and diplomats are different. Politicians use microphones to gain support, but diplomats try to talk less so that the window for negotiations are wide open," he added.
The United States, Australia and Japan on Monday issued a joint statement calling on ASEAN and China to ensure that a South China Sea code of conduct they have committed to draw up will be legally binding.
Cayetano said Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has stated on many occasions that the country will raise Manila's arbitral victory with relevant sides at the proper time.
'PH-backed removal of land reclamation in communique'
The Philippines also wanted to remove the mention of land reclamation in the joint communique, but was convinced otherwise by other ASEAN members, Cayetano said.
"I did not want land reclamation and militarization. It's not reflective of what's happening anymore. They are not reclaiming land anymore so why will you put it here?" he said.
"Whether land reclamation was there or not, the reality on the ground is that people have stopped reclaiming. The reality is it was not only China who was reclaiming," he added.
Manila's top diplomat said it was better to start with a "zero draft" and eventually update it depending on the outcome of dialogues among ASEAN members.
The land reclamation clause eventually made it to the final ASEAN 50th Foreign Ministers' joint communique that was released on Sunday.