MANILA, Philippines—The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) expressed on Tuesday its support for Brunei’s move to pursue a code of conduct among claimants to the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) as the sultanate assumed the chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) this January.
Assistant Secretary Raul Hernandez, the DFA spokesman, described the Philippines’ stance as ‘hopeful’ about the prospects for negotiations among natiobns with conflicting claims to the territories, specifically China.
“We are very supportive of Brunei’s Asean chairmanship. We hope that with Brunei’s leadership, negotiations with China on a binding Code of Conduct of parties in the [West Philippine Sea] could be immediately undertaken,” Hernandez said on Tuesday.
Oil-rich Brunei assumed the chairmanship of the 10-member Asean this month, a changing of the guard that came after a year that was marked with disagreements within the bloc on how to handle the dispute, especially in dealing with China.
The new leadership also comes amid rising tensions within the region, with recent Chinese moves that claimant countries have viewed as incursions into the waters, including sea patrols, military exercises, oil exploration and the fortification of a new city established to govern most of the disputed islands.
Asean members Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines have partial claims to territories within the waters, believed to be rich in oil, mineral and marine resources. China claims almost all of the territories while Taiwan is pushing for its partial claims.
Under last year’s leadership of known China ally Cambodia, the bloc had failed to take a unified stance towards Chinese assertions in the waters, even collapsing in talks for a joint communique in the Asean ministers’ meeting in July.
Members also had conflicting views on whether to pursue talks bilaterally, as China has been asserting, or multilaterally, the approach that the Philippines and Vietnam have long been advocating.
In the absence of a binding code of conduct, the Philippines has been pushing on claimants to comply with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and respect the delineation of exclusive economic zones within the disputed waters.
The Philippines had also many times called on China to respect provisions of the 10-year-old Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), a document that aims to deter use of force and instead promote peace and self-restraint among claimant countries in the region.