PHL vows to bridge, protect WPS interests as ASEAN-China coordinator

As the new country coordinator tasked to bridge the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China, the Philippines will play a constructive role in promoting good ties between the two parties, Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano said.

“As far as our being a country coordinator, very… Very clear naman ‘yung kinommunicate natin na we wear two hats: one as country coordinator tayo ang taga-bridge ng ASEAN at tsaka ng China. And when you say ‘bridge’, two ways ‘yan: kung anong gustong sabihin ng ibang ASEAN member states at kung anong gustong sabihin ng China (As far as our being a country coordinator (is concerned), it’s very clear that we are wearing two hats: one as country coordinator, we bridge ASEAN and China. And when you say ‘bridge’, there are two ways there: what ASEAN member states want to say and what China has to say),” Cayetano said on Wednesday.

Cayetano also assured the Philippines will protect its interests in the South China Sea.

“It will be challenging, but it will be good for us kasi at least sure tayo na sa all of the negotiations, protected ang ating claims (It will be challenging, but it will be good to us because at least we’re sure that in all the negotiations, our claims are protected),” he said, referring to the creation of the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC).

The 10 ASEAN member states take turns in serving as a country coordinator for the bloc’s numerous dialogue relationships. In August 2018, the Philippines was assigned to the ASEAN-China Dialogue Relations.

Currently, the two parties are working towards the early conclusion of the COC, which is aimed at defusing tensions in the strategic waterway, where China, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei, Taiwan, and the Philippines have overlapping territorial claims.

On the draft COC, China has reportedly proposed the conduct of regular joint military exercises in the South China Sea, excluding countries outside the region “unless the parties concerned are notified beforehand and express no objection.”

Professor Richard Javad Heydarian, geopolitics and economic affairs expert, described this as China “trying to limit if not cut off maritime security cooperation between ASEAN claimants, on one hand, and external powers with a direct stake in freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea.”

Cayetano did not give any detail on this proposed provision in the draft but relayed Beijing is interested in a document that dispels “misunderstanding” and “dispute” in the region.

“There’s an agreement among the ASEAN member states (and China) not to disclose what is found in the single draft, precisely, because the negotiation starts getting complicated when we discuss it in public,” he said.

“I was told that China, of course, is sincere and interested in a COC and in all and any ways to transform the South China Sea/West Philippine Sea from an area of dispute and misunderstanding to a zone of peace, cooperation, and development,” he said.

In a roundtable discussion on the same day, Walter Douglas, deputy assistant secretary at the State Department, said US, as an old figure in the region, will maintain its presence in the South China Sea in accordance with international law.

“The United States has been part of this region for 200 years. We’re not going to change that. We’re not going away, so what’s important is that our role be recognized that we’re here,” he told reporters on Wednesday.

When asked to comment on China’s suggestion, Douglas said “ASEAN has to make a decision where it wants to go as a body.”

Earlier, Australian Ambassador Amanda Gorely also said any document that deprives non-signatory states their rights under international law, particularly in working with partners in the region, would be a cause of concern for Canberra.

According to Heydarian, the Philippines should be able to lead in efforts to reject such “exclusionary” proposal in the COC as the ASEAN-China country coordinator.

“The ASEAN, with the Philippines now serving as the new country coordinator with China, should resist such exclusionary demands. They have to make it clear that Southeast Asian claimant states will preserve their sovereign autonomy to maintain robust security cooperation with all major powers for the interest of stability and prosperity in the region,” he added.