MANILA — The territorial disputes in the strategic South China Sea would likely steal the spotlight in this week’s Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) ministerial meeting that would be attended by the regional bloc’s 10 foreign ministers amid reports of China’s installation of anti-aircraft missiles on the disputed Woody Island.
Manila, at odds with China over disputed territories in the resource-rich South China Sea, or West Philippine Sea to the Philippines, plans to tackle the issue at the ASEAN ministerial retreat — an informal and casual type of meeting where countries can speak on various issues of regional concern — to be held on Feb. 25 to 27 at the Laos capital of Vientiane.
The Philippine delegation led by Foreign Undersecretary Laura del Rosario is expected to raise maritime security, including Chinese missiles on Woody Islands, which is also jointly disputed by Vietnam and Taiwan and located in a part of the South China Sea, called the Paracels.
Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario, who is stepping down as DFA Chief on March 7 due to health concerns, has appointed Laura del Rosario to represent him in the meeting. Both officials are not related.
China, which claims the sea nearly in its entirety including areas that overlap with Philippine territories, has objected to efforts to bring the sea disputes to any international arena, including in ASEAN.
Although the Philippines has no claim over Woody Island, it has maintained the position that all claimants to the resource-rich waters should adhere to the rule of law, specifically the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), must not use force or intimidation and adhere to the principles of a non-binding and non-aggression pact on the South China Sea that was signed in 2002 by China and Southeast Asian states.
“In this meeting, we will continue to express our concern with the developments in the South China Sea,” said Foreign Affairs spokesman Charles Jose in a press briefing on Monday.
Of the 10 ASEAN members, four have rival claims with China and Taiwan to the waters — Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei. Other ASEAN members are Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar.
“We are expressing concern over these developments, including the reported missile on Woody Islands. Of course all these things raise our concern and its effect on freedom of navigation, overflight and unimpeded flow of commerce,” said Jose.
Philippine officials will push for its maritime security advocacy by calling for the full and effective implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea and the early conclusion of a legally-binding Code of Conduct in the South China Sea between China and the ASEAN, he added.
The long-simmering territorial rifts have alarmed the rival countries as well as other Asian and western nations which fear the conflicts could turn nasty and restrict free access to the vital waters, also coveted for their potential oil and gas deposits and abundant fish stocks.
“It is also our priority to urge the international community to respect the rule of law by abiding by the decision of the arbitral tribunal at The Hague once it is released,” Jose said, referring to Manila’s case questioning the legality of China’s vast sea claims that overlaps with its territories.
A final decision, Philippine diplomats said, is expected on or before May.
The Philippines, Jose said, will also reiterate the commitments made at the ASEAN-US summit that was hosted by US President Barack Obama in Sunnylands, California last week, where the leaders expressed commitment to rules-based resolution to the South China Sea dispute and for the full respect for legal and diplomatic processes for the peaceful resolution of the maritime row.
The ASEAN agenda in Vientiane, Jose said, would also include discussions on how to effectively implement the ASEAN community vision 2025 and the three blueprints adopted by the leaders at the 27th ASEAN summit held in Nov. 2015 in Malaysia.
In addition, the meeting will discuss “external relations and its centrality in the evolving regional architecture, as well as exchange views in regional and international issues of common interest and concerns,” he added.
Another priority for Manila, Jose said, is to push for the early ratification of the ASEAN Convention against Trafficking in persons and its accompanying action. Michaela del Callar/PNA/northboundasia.com