The Philippines, other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and China have started deliberations on several details regarding the proposed Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, an official of the Department of Foreign Affairs said Thursday.
Foreign Affairs for ASEAN Assistant Sec. Daniel Espiritu revealed that “there is already a sort of agreement” among countries in the region and China on how to address certain situations in the disputed waters to avoid escalation of tensions.
“It’s more on specific situations that may happen in the South China Sea. [It’s] not exactly rights, but let’s say unexpected encounters: What if two naval vessels meet each other? What if a coast guard vessel goes near a certain feature?” Espiritu told a press conference.
“These are now microcosmic issues that are no longer covered by UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea)—still covered by UNCLOS but not specifically,” the DFA official stressed.
According to Espiritu, this development was a breakthrough considering that efforts to craft a Code of Conduct have been around for almost two decades.
“Whatever slow progress we’re making right now is already quite a significant progress,” he observed.
Starting July 30, representatives from all the ASEAN nations as well as from some “external” countries will be meeting in Cambodia for the 55th ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting.
Although concerns on the South China Sea are expected to be discussed, negotiations have already started and “are continuing.”
After coming up with a preamble last year – which stemmed from the Philippines’ chairmanship of negotiations, Espiritu emphasized that concerned parties are now discussing the general provisions of the Code of Conduct. He hoped that in the next few months, the mechanics would already be available.
“Every line has to be agreed on by consensus. And China is there, and all 10 ASEAN countries are there, and we have to be very careful about this,” he said.
“This will engage later on rules on engagement, which could have an impact on sovereign rights and sovereign right issues, and so we cannot be doing all of these in haste and regret things afterward,” the DFA official added.
Meanwhile, the Philippines and ASEAN have adopted measures to ensure an unimpeded supply of basic needs amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing Ukraine-Russia war, the DFA said.
Espiritu disclosed that measures first implemented during the height of the pandemic were still being implemented and “there is still a lot of progress in it.”
Espiritu said these included the COVID-19 ASEAN recovery fund, which is still being disbursed to cover the purchase and distribution of the vaccines and other medical supplies.
“In fact, also corollary to this, there’s a lot of this program on the ASEAN reserve on regional supplies,” Espiritu told a media briefing.
“These are preposition relief medicines fund vaccines for the COVID pandemic that are placed in individual ASEAN countries,” the DFA official.
Nonetheless, Espiritu assured the Philippines and the ASEAN would also ensure that “livelihood economic activities will not be paralyzed in ASEAN.”
He also said the food and energy security concerns “are constantly also being discussed in the ASEAN” due to the ongoing Ukraine-Russia crisis.
“Conferences are being done under the economic pillar to address these things [as well as] harmonization of policy measures and activity to further economic activities and relax our food security issues, especially in the face of food shortages because of the shortage of supply from that area,” Espiritu told reporters.
The DFA official admitted that there are also “some unconcluded proposals in ASEAN, which will be further addressed” in the current ministerial meeting.
“China is proposing a statement on energy security and also a separate statement from food security. And other external partners are
proposing the same measure,” he said.
In related developments, the DFA said ASEAN would not exclude Russia in its upcoming Foreign Ministers’ Meeting, as the regional bloc intends to provide a platform for discussion among conflicting and warring parties.
Espiritu stressed the ASEAN “is distinct in the sense that it provides a forum for preventive diplomacy for the peaceful management of disputes and tensions.”
In a press conference ahead of the 55th ASEAN meeting, Espiritu revealed “there have been moves” even from the very start of the Ukraine-Russia conflict among the external partners or countries outside of the ASEAN to exclude Russia from many meetings, workshops, and fora.