MANILA - The Philippines will not ignore China’s continuous militarization in the South China Sea, Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano said Sunday.
"We won't ignore it but how it will be treated, give us some latitude in the negotiations, consultations," Cayetano told reporters on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meetings here.
"When you're negotiating, you already know what you want: you want strongest possible agreement. If you keep announcing it, it will harm the negotiations," Cayetano added.
Four ASEAN members - the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, and Vietnam - have conflicting claims with China in the strategic route where Beijing built several man-made islands in the area capable of housing military troops and weapons.
In August, ASEAN foreign ministers and their Chinese counterparts approved a framework for a code of conduct in disputed waters. The regional bloc agreed to push for a legally binding code despite Beijing's objections.
But days before top Chinese leaders flew to Vietnam for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meetings, and to the Philippines for the ASEAN Summit, Beijing deployed a massive dredging ship to the disputed waters.
Military officials said the ship, Tian Kun, has a deck the size of nine basketball courts and would become Asia's largest dredging vessel.
"The mere presence is a little bit concerning. Where it is going, we do not know," Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said.
Last week, President Rodrigo Duterte said he will be "frank" with China about its continuous activity in the contested territory.
"You will have to trust me na pupunta ako doon but I will assert something and that is our inherent right to one day really put a stake to what we think is ours,” Duterte told reporters last week before he flew to Vietnam of the APEC Summit.
Duterte said he is holding on to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s promise not to build an island on Scarborough Shoal (Panatag Shoal), which is located some 124 nautical miles off Zambales and is within the Philippines' Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
Southeast Asian leaders and their Chinese counterparts are expected to announce the formal start of negotiations on the sea code on the sidelines of the ASEAN Summit in the coming days.
But actual deliberations on the code "will probably happen sometime next year," Foreign Affairs spokesman Robespierre Bolivar said.
"(Next year) The Philippines will take over as coordinator of ASEAN-China relations starting next year. The Philippines will have a lead role while negotiations are starting up," he said.