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Finalize the proposed SCS Code of Conduct

After President Duterte appealed to China to temper its behavior in the South China Sea – referring to its warning off Philippine military aircraft flying over disputed islands, both natural and artificial – China immediately responded, saying it has a right to warn off foreign ships and planes tha come close to its islands.

Our President has long taken the position that while we stand by our rights in the South China Sea, especially our sovereign right to the resources within the 370-kilometer Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) around our islands under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), we will not get involved in a war with China over our claims.

His speaking out on the matter a few days ago was rather unexpected. He spoke after a Philippine military plane was challenged and warned off when it flew over a man-made Chinese installation close to a Philippine-claimed island. Reacting to the incident, the President said in a speech in Malacanang: “You cannot create an island… and then you claim that the air above the artificial island is yours. That is wrong because those waters are considered international sea and the right of innocent passage is guaranteed.”

China’s response was immediate. The Chinese Foreign Ministry said the Spratly Islands are China’s inherent territory and it has the right to take necessary steps to respond to foreign aircraft and ships that get close to its islands. The fact is China claims almost the whole of the South China Sea as its sovereign territory. It has a map showing a nine-dash line looping around the South China Sea and it includes part of the Philippines EEZ under UNCLOS.

The Philippines and the rest of the world do not recognize this nine-dash claim of sovereignty. And so the United States and other nations regularly send their ships and planes into the area, claiming freedom of navigation in international waters. One of these days, President Duterte said, some “hot-head commander” might just press a trigger and start a shooting war.

For years now, China and the ten members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have managed to maintain an uneasy peace despite their conflicting claims in the SCS. China proposed a Code of Conduct to govern their conduct in the area, with the aim of avoiding the accidental war President Duterte warned against.

The proposed Code of Conduct, however, has not been finalized to this day. It remains a goal which China and all the ASEAN nations affirm. But its provisions must be spelled out, including how to avoid challenges at sea such as the recent incident which caused President Duterte to appeal to China to “temper” its behavior in the disputed sea.

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