Duterte asks ASEAN to help ease tensions at sea

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President Rodrigo R. Duterte on Friday asked Southeast Asian leaders to avoid tensions in the South China Sea while the world fights a coronavirus pandemic.

“Even as our region struggles to contain the COVID-19, alarming incidents in the South China Sea occurred,” the Philippine leader said at the 36th Association of Southeast Asian Nation (ASEAN) Summit, held virtually.

“We call on parties to refrain from escalating tensions and abide by responsibilities under international law,” Mr. Duterte said in a speech.

He also urged the parties to act in line with their commitment to other international instruments such as the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea.

Mr. Duterte cited the continuing tension between the United States and China, adding that ASEAN member economies should uphold international policies in engaging with the global rivals.

“The Great Powers will continue to draw us into their respective camps,” the President said. “We should continue to nimbly engage them in ways that most benefit us.”

“We must insist on an open and rules-based international order that gives all countries – large or small – not just one voice, but an equal standing,” Mr. Duterte said.

The Philippines this month suspended its decision to end a military pact with the US on the troop deployment for war games due to the heightened tensions in the region and the global pandemic.

Mr. Duterte said parties should think of ways to continue discussions on the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. The Philippines is the country coordinator for the ASEAN-China dialogue.

“We must find innovative ways and exercise flexibility to achieve our common goals,” he said. “We remain committed to work closely with member states and China toward the early conclusion of an effective and substantive code of conduct in the South China Sea.”

China and ASEAN economies had agreed to a three-year timeline, or until 2022, to complete the code meant to ease tensions at sea. — Charmaine A. Tadalan