Marcos to push code of conduct at ASEAN Summit in Indonesia

By Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza, Reporter

PHILIPPINE President Ferdinand “Bongbong” R. Marcos, Jr. on Tuesday night pushed a code of conduct for the South China Sea amid worsening tensions from China’s increased assertiveness at sea.

The target code of conduct, which dates back to 1992, should be released “sooner rather than later because tensions are increasing,” Mr. Marcos Jr. told reporters before meeting his Southeast Asian counterparts in Indonesia, based on a transcript sent by the presidential palace.

Tensions in the South China Sea and power rivalries in the region are expected to be tackled during the 42nd Association of Southeast Nations (ASEAN) Summit in Indonesia that started on May 9 and will end on May 11.

Mr. Marcos vowed to raise the matter again like he did at last year’s ASEAN Summit in Cambodia, but said negotiations would be done outside the ASEAN Summit and related summits.

“You cannot stop trying,” he said. “So yes, I will bring it up again.”

“When we talk about the issues on the West Philippine Sea, South China Sea, they will not stop until we have a code of conduct.”

During his intervention at the ASEAN Leaders’ Interface with the High-Level Task Force on the ASEAN Community’s post-2025 vision on Wednesday, Mr. Marcos said ASEAN should show the world that “we are able to respond effectively to geopolitical and geo economic challenges as a cohesive force.”

“Today, ASEAN faces a complex geopolitical environment which includes rivalries amongst great powers, climate change and technological disruptions, amongst others,” he said. “ASEAN itself is not immune to its own challenges, as we continue to navigate our differences in the region towards a general consensus of action.”

“Regionalism should mirror our collective interests, for our strength relies on our united voice,” Mr. Marcos said.

There were challenges that prevented ASEAN leaders from coming up with a South China Sea code of conduct, the Philippine leader said, and one of them was the overlapping agreements between China and other ASEAN members.

During the 25th ASEAN-China Summit in Cambodia last year, Mr. Marcos pushed the approval of the code for the South China Sea, which is being claimed by Beijing almost in its entirety.

The Philippines and other ASEAN members such as Brunei, Malaysia, and Vietnam hold different — and in some cases overlapping — claims over the waterway, which is rich in oil and fish.

In 1992, ASEAN leaders signed a declaration that emphasized the “necessity to resolve all sovereignty and jurisdictional issues pertaining to the South China Sea by peaceful means, without resort to force.”

They aimed to establish a code of international conduct over the waterway that they said should be based on the “principles contained in the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia.”

In 2002, ASEAN and China signed a nonbinding agreement in which 11 countries agreed that a South China Sea code of conduct was needed.

Various issues, including the use of strong language against China, have prevented ASEAN members from finalizing the code.

“What is the problem? What is the bottleneck? Where are we having a hard time? How can we fix that problem?” Mr. Marcos told reporters. “That’s what these meetings should be for, and I think we’ll get to that point because everybody wants this to work, everybody wants to have a code of conduct.”

In December, a Philippine Foreign Affairs official dealing with ASEAN affairs said ASEAN members and China were “still very far from concluding” the code of conduct.

Noel Novicio, deputy assistant secretary and executive director of the Department of Foreign Affairs Office of ASEAN Affairs, said some Southeast Asian countries preferred to have face-to-face negotiations.

At the time, they had finalized the first part of the document.

“I’d like to inform you that there is an unwritten agreement among ASEAN member states and China that nothing is finalized until everything is finalized,” he told a news briefing then.

Indonesia, this year’s ASEAN chairman, is a nonclaimant state but has conflicts with China over its exploration of oil and gas in the North Natuna Sea. China claims some parts of the area fall under its nine-dash line, which Indonesia in 2020 said was illegal.

The largest ASEAN member, in a note verbale addressed to United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, also raised the 2016 Hague arbitral ruling that largely favored the Philippines in its sea dispute with China.

“The common Code of Conduct by claimant-countries in the South China Sea should be agreed now,” Chester B. Cabalza, founding president of the International Development and Security Cooperation, said in Facebook Messenger chat. “It has been long overdue. The collective agreement should be fast-tracked to prevent further escalation of maritime insecurities in the contested waterways.”

A binding code of conduct would “give teeth and enforcement to regional mechanisms agreed by claimant-countries in the South China Sea,” he said, adding that only claimant-countries should contribute to the contents of the code.

It’s unwise for parties concerned to pin all their hopes in the document in managing sea disputes, said Lucio B. Pitlo III, a research fellow at the Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation.

“There should be a measured expectation of what the code of conduct can and cannot deliver,” he said in a Messenger chat. “A binding code of conduct may prescribe certain actions or behavior in the disputed sea, but it will not resolve territorial or maritime claims.”

The three-day ASEAN Summit and Related Summits take place amid increasing tensions between China and the United States, whose 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) with the Philippines has been expanded by Mr. Marcos.

Mr. Marcos Jr. said the code of conduct is in line with the concept of ASEAN centrality, which he has vowed to uphold in dealing with maritime tensions.

Security experts have said the Philippine leader had yet to bank on the strength of ASEAN in dealing with China’s aggression in Philippine waters.

Mr. Marcos Jr., 65, has boosted Manila’s defense alliance with Washington, giving it access to four more military bases on top of the five existing sites under EDCA.

Aside from being vocal against China’s expansive activities in the South China Sea, the US has also criticized the Asian superpower’s aggression against self-ruled Taiwan.

China has criticized the EDCA expansion, accusing Washington of endangering regional peace and stability.