MANILA — President Rodrigo Duterte on Thursday told his fellow Southeast Asian leaders that a 4-year-old arbitral ruling against Beijing's sweeping claims in the disputed South China Sea "cannot be diminished nor ignored."
The 2016 ruling of a United Nations-backed panel, which invoked the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, "is now part of international law," Duterte said via video conference in the 37th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit.
"Its significance cannot be diminished nor ignored by any country, however big and powerful," the President said, stopping short of naming China, which claims nearly all of the resource-rich waters.
Beijing claims about 80 percent of the sea, including parts of the exclusive economic zones of the Philippines and fellow ASEAN members Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam. Taiwan also has partial claims.
"We must, therefore, remain united. We must show that we are masters of our region’s destiny and that we can work together to achieve shared aspirations and solve common problems," Duterte told ASEAN leaders.
"As I have said before, the South China Sea issue is ASEAN’s strategic challenge. How we deal with this matter lays bare our strengths and weaknesses as a community. We must act with haste," he added.
The Philippines is "committed to the immediate conclusion of a substantive and effective Code of Conduct in the South China Sea," which "has been a long time and it is a long wait," said Duterte.
There have been concerns that negotiations on the code between the ASEAN and China may be delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"The Philippine position is clear and firm. We must solve the disputes peacefully and in accordance with international law, including UNCLOS," he added.
WHAT IS HAPPENING AT THE ASEAN SUMMIT
High on the summit's agenda will be tensions in the South China Sea, where Chinese ships have been embroiled in periodic standoffs with vessels from Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia as Beijing seeks to assert its territorial claims in the disputed waterway.
"Three quarters of a century have passed since the end of the Second World War. World peace and security, however, are not yet truly sustainable," said Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc in his opening remarks at the 37th ASEAN Summit in Hanoi.
"This year, they are particularly under greater threat as a result of compounding risks arising from the unpredictable conduct of states, major power rivalries and frictions," added Phuc, whose government holds the chairmanship of the 10-member bloc in 2020.
Since mid-August, the United States has repeatedly riled China by sending warships to the South China Sea and has blacklisted 24 Chinese entities over their involvement in building and militarizing artificial islands.
ASEAN leaders are also expected to sign the China-backed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) on Sunday in what could become the world's biggest trade agreement.
The deal, which comes at a time when tensions over the US election result leave questions over Washington's engagement in the region, will likely cement China's position more firmly as an economic partner with Southeast Asia, Japan and Korea, and put it in a better position to shape the region's trade rules.
- With a report from Reuters