PHNOM PENH—President Benigno Aquino III on Tuesday called on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) to have a “first crack” at the drafting of the Code of Conduct (COC) of the Parties to the South China Sea as he rejected China’s involvement in its initial drafting.
“It is important that we maintain Asean centrality. After the COC has been finalized by Asean, then Asean member-states will meet with China,” Mr. Aquino was quoted by his officials as telling Asean leaders at the start of the 20th summit of the regional bloc here at the Peace Palace.
The President made the call after Asean Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan reported to Asean leaders during the closed-door plenary session that China had expressed interest in participating in the drafting of the COC “earlier than later,” said Mr. Aquino’s spokesperson Edwin Lacierda.
A working group has been firming up the COC since the regional grouping signed the Declaration on the Code of Conduct of Parties to the South China Sea (DOC).
Unlike the DOC, the new COC being finalized will be legally binding to all Asean members, particularly the four Asean members which have territorial claims in the South China Sea—the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam.
The South China Sea is being claimed wholly by China and in part by Taiwan.
Before Mr. Aquino asked the Asean to draft the COC, Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario had told his Asean counterparts the other day on the need for “Asean to first agree among themselves on the draft text of the COC before meeting with China.”
The Philippines and China have been clashing over Beijing’s incursions in certain areas in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, which Manila refers to as the West Philippine Sea.
At a press briefing at the Sunway hotel here, Lacierda said only Mr. Aquino issued the call during the plenary session attended by Asean leaders.
No other leader responded to the President’s call because each had their own issues that they wanted to highlight at the summit, according to Lacierda.
Ambassador Wilfrido Villacorta, permanent representative to the Asean who attended the briefing, told reporters that China wanted to be included in the drafting of the COC and “even in identifying the elements and contents of the COC.”
“As articulated by President Aquino in the plenary session of the summit Asean must maintain its centrality in dealing with dialog parties on whatever issue,” Villacorta said.
He added that Mr. Aquino’s position, shared by others, was for member-states of the Asean to produce the first draft of the COC before involving China.
Asean in driver’s seat
He said the Asean had stated that it should “always be in the driver’s seat” in its dealings with dialog partners like China.
“We, meaning the Asean member-states, should have the first crack at it,” Villacorta said. “China should hear us out first. This is our document.”
Villacorta said the position taken by Mr. Aquino was “not a gesture of hostility” toward China.
“It’s just that that’s usually the way it’s done. Because we always act as one, Asean. that’s the idea. We act as one group,” he said.
He also said China would “understand” the Philippine position as this was a procedure in negotiations.
Villacorta said he believed there was an “informal consensus” arrived at by the Asean that it should first draft the COC before involving China.
He hailed the “gutsy approach by which we have been dealing with the West Philippine Sea issue.”
“The Philippines scored points (here),” he told reporters.
Asked whether the Asean would put this down in a formal statement at the conclusion of the summit on Wednesday, he said it was “likely” this would be included in the Asean declaration to be issued at the end of the summit.
Del Rosario, meanwhile, told reporters that he expected the COC to be signed by the end of the year, “at least during the end of the (Asean) chairmanship” of Cambodia.
Del Rosario said Cambodia was “trying to be objective and fair and trying to be an effective chair” considering it was an ally of China.
But diplomats said new problems emerged in attempts by Asean members and China to come up with a pact aimed at preventing South China Sea territorial rifts from becoming violent.
They said that differences arose between China and countries, including the Philippines and Vietnam, on how to draft a nonaggression pact to prevent clashes amid the disputes. With a report from AP