MANILA, Philippines – Calls for President Rodrigo Duterte to push the issue on the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) as among the discussions during the 50th Asean summit grew louder on Wednesday, April 26, as lawmakers joined former top diplomats in stressing that the Philippines, as host-country, must stand its ground on the matter.
Muntinlupa City Rep. Rozzano Rufino Biazon, vice chairman of the House Committee on National Defense, said he was hoping that the Philippines would be able to include the issue in the talks so that it could get commitments or statements from its fellow Asean members.
Biazon said it won’t be difficult for the Philippines to push for a code of conduct in the West Philippine Sea especially after the UN Arbitral Tribunal ruled in July 2016 that the country had exclusive sovereign rights over the West Philippine Sea and that China’s nine-dash line was invalid.
“One, makakuha tayo ng magandang commitment or even a statement from our fellow Asean members with regard to our position in the West Philippine Sea. Meron naman na tayong maliwanag na desisyon by the arbitral court. Do’n sana pick-upin din ng neighbors,” said Biazon.
Act Teachers party-list Rep. Antonio Tinio said this would be the chance for Duterte to assert an independent foreign policy and proclaim before fellow Asean members that the West Philippine Sea should not become a playground of big, powerful countries such as China and the United States.
“Pagkakataon na ito para i-assert ni Pangulong Duterte ‘yong kanyang independent foreign policy…At sabihin na dapat ‘yong West Philippine Sea ay di maging playground ng malalaki at makapangyarihang bansa tulad ng China or US,” said Tinio.
The lawmaker added that this would likewise be the opportunity for the chief executive to rally fellow Asean members to urge China to “respect the sovereignty” of the Philippines and other Southeast Asian nations claiming portions of the disputed territories.
Besides the Philippines, Asean members Brunei, Malaysia, and Vietnam are also claiming portions of the Spratlys within the South China Sea. The other non-Asean claimant is Taiwan, which occupies Itu Aba, the biggest island in the Spratlys.
Brunei has included Louisa Reef within the Spratlys in its exclusive economic zone. Malaysia has occupied three islands within the Spratlys that it considers to be within its continental shelf.
Vietnam claims the entire Spratly Islands as an offshore district of the province of Khanh Hoa. It controls 21 islands, reefs, shoals, and cay, while the Philippines claims 52 features but was only able to occupy within the Kalayaan Island Group seven islands, two reefs, and one cay.
The calls made by awmakers were similar to the positions of former key Filipino diplomats.
No opportunity like this one – Baja
Lauro Baja, former permanent representative to the UN for the Philippines, on Wednesday said the country “should be resourceful and skillful enough to find ways to reflect the Arbitration decision.”
“As chair of Asean 50, we should assert our prerogative and leadership on the issue” because “we will never get another opportunity like what we have now,” said Baja.
He said Duterte’s statement as chairman of the Asean should not be “coy or timid.”
“It will be absurd (or) surreal if do not not even initiate discusions on the issue or let others do it. That will be a shame. We will be disinheriting our children of rights bestowed by the Arbitral Panel,” added Baja.
Asean must be rules-based: Del Rosario
Earlier in the day, former Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario said the purpose of Asean cooperation “should go beyond maintaining friendly ties.”
“(W)e must also cooperate to ensure that we live in a neighborhood where countries follow the rules and uphold their commitments,” he said as he urged Asean members to unite and persuade China to follow international laws in relation to the West Philippine Sea issue.
Asked by media on Wednesday to comment on Duterte’s draft statement as Asean chair in relation to the developments in the South China Sea, Del Rosario said it “is deeply disappointing and, if not revisited, would manifest an absence of the desired leadership.”