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Philippines hopes South China Sea 'code of conduct' ready this year

Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay speaks during a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (not pictured) in Moscow, Russia, December 5, 2016. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin
The online news portal of TV5

MANILA, Philippines - The Philippines, seeking to improve relations with China, hopes a long-delayed framework for a Code of Conduct (COC) in the disputed South China Sea will be completed by the middle of this year, its foreign minister said on Wednesday.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay said the code would help de-escalate tension in the waters, where China has started militarizing artificial islands built after the Philippines filed an arbitration case against Beijing in The Hague.

The tribunal ruled last year in Manila's favor, rejecting China's claims to the waterway. But the ruling will not be on the agenda of this year's Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit, a Philippine official said last week.

However, Yasay said the Philippines, as chairman of this year’s ASEAN, will intensify efforts to fast track the discussions on the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea and eventually complete the COC.

In fact, discreet discussions are currently underway and China has been “very cooperative” in the process, he said.

“The formulation of the COC is precisely being discussed right now. I don’t want to preempt anything by revealing further information but I hope that it will be achieved by mid-2017,” Yasay said. “There is now a convergence of national interest to come up with the COC and we are fortunate to have gotten to this level.”

The COC has been in the works since 2002 but “intervening events,” as Yasay called them, prompted years of delays and prevented it from moving forward.

He said that the COC might “open the door to speed up bilateral engagement” with China to eventually enforce the ruling of an international arbitral tribunal in the disputed waters.

The framework, Yasay disclosed, will include key elements and principles for the legally-binding COC.

“I hate to think a party not to be bound by it or deviate from it. I’m sure that they will be bound by it,” he said, pointing out that the COC should be agreed by all the parties unanimously.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte reiterated last month he wanted to avoid confrontation with China and saw no need to press Beijing to abide by the ruling.

The code of conduct would make sure ASEAN and China follow legal and diplomatic processes in settling territorial disputes, Yasay said.

He said the ruling in The Hague may not have an effect on the code because Manila cannot dismantle the structures on the man-made island Beijing has built within its 200-mile exclusive economic zone.

"This is a matter that we will be raising with China at some future time in bilateral talks and," he said. "... Involving others in the discussion of this decision is just simply counter-productive for our purposes."

China claims most of the energy-rich South China Sea through which about $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year. Neighbors Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims.