UN arbitral ruling excluded from ASEAN statement

MANILA — Taking note of the “concerns” of some of its leaders over developments in the South China Sea, members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) reiterated the importance of “maintaining peace, stability, security, and freedom of navigation and over-flight in the area” but did not mention the UN arbitral ruling negating China claim to much of the disputed territory.

“We took note of the serious concerns expressed by some leaders over recent developments and escalation of activities in he area, which may further raise tensions and erode trust and confidence in the region,” the Chairman’s Statement on the 3oth Asean Summit said Sunday.

Also, it said that it took note of “the improvement of bilateral relations between some Asean member states and China.”

Aside from the Philippines, Asean member countries that are claimants to the disputed seas are Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei.

A report by Agence France-Presse, citing sources in the diplomatic community, said that the Chinese Embassy in Manila requested the Philippine government not to mention international law in the statement and the removal of the phrase “respect for legal and diplomatic processes,” which could refer to the arbitral ruling.

But the report added that other Asean nations were not happy with the chairman’s statement in relation to the South China Sea and even had “hot debates” on the issue.

The statement, which supposedly reflects an agreement of the Asean member states, said that they welcomed “the progress to complete a framework of the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea by middle of this year, in order to facilitate the early adoption of the COC.”

Several versions of the supposed draft statements had been circulating prior the Asean leaders’ meeting, but this was not immediately confirmed by Palace officials.

It was during the time of President Benigno Aquino III that the Philippines filed a legal protest against China’s nine-dash line claims. During the Asean summits when he was president, a vocal opposition to China’s claim was urged.

But when Duterte assumed office last year, he shifted away from the Philippines’ traditional ally United States and forged closer ties with its rivals China and Russia. He refused to use the Philippines’ victory to use it against China.