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A very positive ASEAN joint communique

MANY will find the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) foreign ministers’ joint communiqué on the South China Sea disputes wanting in so many ways.

There was no mention at all of the ruling last year of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague on the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) which rejected China’s claim to sovereignty over most of the South China Sea. China has since built installations, including runways, on several islands and islets also claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei.

There was mention in the ASEAN communiqué of a proposed Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea, aimed at maintaining peace in the region through self-restraint in settling disputes. But there is no COC yet. What the ASEAN ministers agreed on with China was the adoption of a framework to help them begin the substantive negotiation on the actual provisions of the COC. But even this future Code of Conduct, China insists, must not be legally binding.

It was the foreign ministers of the United States, Japan, and Australia who, in their own joint communiqué, criticized “land reclamation, construction of outposts, militarization of disputed features” – all referring to China’s recent activities in the South China Sea that have been protested by other claimant nations and challenged by the US as a threat to freedom of navigation.

It is said that Vietnam wanted a more assertive ASEAN communiqué at the end of their meeting in Manila this week, but the other ASEAN nations, notably Cambodia, opted for a non-confrontational stand against China.

This has also been the position taken by the Philippines under President Duterte, chairman of ASEAN on its 50th anniversary this year. The President has stressed that we firmly stand behind that Arbitral Court ruling against China’s claims in the South China Sea, but this is not the time to challenge China.

The other ASEAN nations, it seems, share this view, hence the very positive joint communiqué that the foreign ministers approved last Saturday. That final joint statement was truly wanting in so many ways but we are certain that a time will come when all things will be set right.