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Code of Conduct rather than court ruling

It does seem strange that while the Group of Seven (G7) – the world’s top industrial nations – is calling for the implementation of the United Nations Arbitral Court ruling on the South China Sea, the Asian nations actually involved are not showing half as much interest in the issue.

The foreign ministers of the G7 – Canada, France, Germany Italy, Japan, United Kingdom, and United States – issued a joint communiqué in which they cited the June 12, 2016, ruling of the Arbitral Court under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) as a useful basis for efforts to resolve the disputes in the South China Sea.

In marked contrast, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China are now working to finish a Code of Conduct (COC) Framework in the South China Sea, which they hope will be ready for the ASEAN Summit to be held this year in the Philippines. “There is a strong level of commitment between ASEAN and China to conclude the COC Framework,” Department of Foreign Affairs spokesman Robespierre Bolivar said.

The G7 nations – all Western except for Japan – rely on international law in the settlement of disputes between nations. They have maintained their commitment to freedom of navigation, overflight, and other internationally lawful uses of the seas.

In contrast, Asian nations tend to prefer negotiated agreements rather than legal rulings. The ASEAN itself reaches decisions by consensus, not by voting thus in the South China Sea, where China claims jurisdiction and sovereignty, the ASEAN has chosen to negotiate a Code of Conduct with China, rather than enforce the Arbitral Court ruling.

The Philippines may have filed the original complaint against China in the Arbitral Court during the Aquino administration, but new President Duterte has chosen to negotiate with China instead, knowing that its legal case will lead nowhere considering China’s declaration that its claim to sovereignty is non-negotiable. The court ruling is there, an important part of the Philippine position, he said, but at the moment, it would be best to deal with China the ASEAN way, the Asian way.

The Philippines is chairman this year of the ASEAN whose ministers are meeting in Bohol this week, with the presidents and prime ministers meeting at a Summit later this year. The South China Sea dispute, in which four of the ASEAN nations have claims against China – may come up in the meetings but very likely, the ASEAN leaders will be acting – not on the UN Arbitral ruling – but on a Code of Conduct in the disputed sea.

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