ASEAN leaders fail to come up with protocol on Spratlys

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (MindaNews/03 April) – Foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) failed to come up with a common stand over the disputed Spratly Islands in the West Philippine Sea especially on dealing with powerhouse China, in a meeting here on Monday afternoon.

But the ministers agreed to continue with the high-level discussions over a proposed code of conduct (COC) for the settlement of the disputed maritime space and islands, and hopes remained high that the issue would be settled soon.

“We stood by our position (for ASEAN) to conclude first the drafting of the COC before we sit down with China,” Philippines Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario told reporters after their meeting at the Office of the Council of Ministers’ Peace Palace here.

He said other parties wanted China to sit down with them before the drafting of the COC but “we did not agree to that.”

Reports said Indonesia is pushing that ASEAN should have initial discussions with China first before the draft COC is presented to them.

Indonesia, which chaired the ASEAN last year, had facilitated the laying down of the guidelines for the proposed code.

Tension has continued to rise since last year over the disputed maritime area due to the alleged incursions of Chinese naval units, which the Philippines and Vietnam strongly protested.

Aside from the three countries, Taiwan and ASEAN states Brunei and Malaysia have also claimed portions of the disputed territory, which reportedly hosts significant oil and gas deposits.

ASEAN and China initially signed a declaration of conduct over the dispute in 2002 and agreed on the guidelines for its implementation in July last year.

In January, ASEAN started discussions for the drafting of the COC, which it hopes to conclude before the planned ASEAN-China Summit here in November.

In a press conference late Monday afternoon, Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Hor Namhong said the DOC will serve as basis for the settlement of the dispute.

“We agreed that the settlement should be based on the principle and spirit of keeping peace and stability in the South China (West Philippines) Sea,” he said.

Namhong said they decided that the settlement of the disputed area would be based on existing international laws, specifically the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas.

He said the drafting of the COC will follow a “step by step” process that would be determined in the succeeding talks.

In a statement issued during the meeting, del Rosario said they’re still hopeful that they would sign the code this year.

“The Philippines hopes that the code of conduct will be a real move forward not merely in terms of form, but more importantly in substance,” he added. (Allen V. Estabillo)