ASEAN meeting in Boracay unsettled by cloud of Hague ruling on South China Sea

Posted on February 22, 2017

SOUTHEAST ASIAN countries see China’s installation of weapons systems in the South China Sea as very unsettling and want to prevent militarization and urge dialogue to stop “recent developments” from escalating, a minister representing the Philippines said in a press conference on Tuesday.

Foreign Affairs Sec. Perfecto R. Yasay (far right) walks down from the podium together with other foreign ministers after a group photo session during the opening ceremony of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)'s annual ministerial meeting in Vientiane on July 24, 2016. AFP
It was Perfecto R. Yasay, Jr., the Philippines’ Foreign Affairs secretary, who disclosed that foreign ministers of the 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) were unanimous in their concern about Beijing’s reclamation and militarization of man-made islands.

Mr. Yasay further disclosed that two to four ministers were for the inclusion of the 2016 Hague decision that ruled in favor of the Philippines in its contested territory with China in the drafting of the framework of the Code of Conduct (CoC) on the South China Sea.

“There were some ministers that expressed the fact that the parties should not only respect international law, particularly the rule of law, the 1982 UNCLOS but including a respect for the arbitral tribunal decision of July 12, (2016),” Mr. Yasay told reporters, referring to the maritime ruling in the Philippines’ favor that the country, however, is seen to be playing down on China’s behalf -- particularly now on the ASEAN meetings this year hosted by the Philippines.

On the face of the country’s regard of the arbitral ruling, Mr. Yasay also said: “One must remember that this decision of the arbitration tribunal is our contribution to the jurisprudence as far as the law of the seas is concerned and the claimants can use this fact as a basis should they pursue a legal complaint against China before an arbitral tribunal or a competent jurisdictional body having authority on the case.”

Sought for comment, Richard Javad Heydarian, political science professor at De La Salle University, said in a phone interview: “There doesn’t seem to be a consensus among ASEAN countries. Therefore, this implies that the Philippines will not be pushing the issue this much, as it’s difficult to get a unanimous approval of all ASEAN countries.”

He added that Mr. Yasay, who had previously claimed to have filed a protest against China’s encroachment of Philippine territory in the contested waters, is feeling the pressure of having to assert the arbitration ruling vis-a-vis Mr. Duterte’s shelving the issue.

“I think what we see right now is [that] Mr. Yasay probably feels the pressure to show that the Philippines and particularly himself will assert the county’s interest in the SCS (South China Sea) and not shelve the arbitration issue,” Mr. Heydarian said.

“This is problematic because first of all we have President Duterte himself saying last December that he’s putting aside the arbitration award [in] the interest of regional politics. It seems that Yasay is somehow contradicting his issues on that principle. The other thing is it would have been more instructive for Sec. Yasay to mention whether there’s any sort of unanimity in even making the arbitration award and regional discussions considering that there are opposition to it.”

Asked which countries could be against including the Hague ruling in ASEAN discussions, he said it could be Cambodia and states that are not claimants in the SCS. “We have very active efforts from China to either bribe or intimidate ASEAN countries in supporting any measure in tying its hands on the issue of the South China Sea.”

As for the four ministers alluded to by the Foreign Affairs secretary, he said it could be Vietnam, Singapore, and other claimants such as Malaysia and Indonesia. “They are like-minded countries and they are the five founding members of the ASEAN and they also have a great sense of responsibility.”

Moving forward, Mr. Heydarian said these five countries could start by drafting a Code of Conduct among themselves.

“I think the most realistic thing for the ASEAN to consider is to go for what I call ASEAN minilateralism rather than multilateralism. Likeminded countries, fellow-claimant countries in the SCS from ASEAN themselves could sign a CoC framework among themselves,” Mr. Heydarian said.

“This is already the 50th anniversary of ASEAN, 15 years since the declaration of the CoC in the South China Sea,” he also noted.

“It is high time that a clique among ASEAN claimant states will have a CoC because I don’t see China really interested in even pushing ahead in even a framework of a CoC or anything that could tie its hands on the ground,” he added. -- with reports by Reuters, Lucia Edna P. de Guzman