By John Victor D. Ordoñez, Reporter

THE PHILIPPINES’ best course of action in easing tensions in the South China Sea is to push for the finalization of a code of conduct in the disputed waterway, political analysts said on Tuesday.

“The Philippines must be patient and pragmatic in negotiations with all concerned countries that have claims in the South China Sea,” Anna Rosario Malindog-Uy, vice president of the global think tank Asian Century Philippines Strategic Studies, said at the Pandesal Forum.

Negotiations for a code of conduct, being drawn up by the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China, started in 2002 after the signing of the non-binding Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea.

China, which asserts ownership over most of the resource-rich waters, has overlapping claims with the Philippines and fellow ASEAN members Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam as well as Taiwan.

A United Nations-backed international tribunal voided in 2016 China’s claim to more than 80% of the sea based on a 1940s map.

Bobby M. Tuazon, director of Policy Studies & In-house Policy Analyst of the Center for People Empowerment in Governance (CenPEG), told the same forum that China will likely continue being open to dialogue on resolving the territorial issues.

He urged newly-appointed Defense Secretary Gilberto “Gibo” C. Teodoro, Jr. and Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique A. Manalo to work together to ensure that the country’s ties with the United States do not aggravate tensions with China.

“I hope that his appointment (Mr. Teodoro) would complement Secretary Manalo’s role, and would lead to a deeper understanding of President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr.’s so-called independent foreign policy,” he said.

The Philippines in February gave the US greater access to its military bases under their 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).

China has criticized the EDCA expansion, accusing the US of endangering regional peace and stability.

Last month, Philippine President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr. pushed for the completion of the code of conduct during the ASEAN Summit in Indonesia amid worsening tensions from China’s increased assertiveness at sea.

The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) set up five navigational buoys in the disputed water on May 10- 12, which it said would protect Philippine maritime borders and raise the safety of maritime trade.

The Philippines is eyeing security partnerships with other countries, including a three-way security pact with Japan and the US. It is also in talks to include Australia and Japan in planned joint South China Sea patrols with the US.

Ms. Uy said the Philippines should prioritize becoming an “economic powerhouse” in Southeast Asia, to strengthen the country’s military prowess, which would reduce its dependence on other states.