GUIYANG, China—Philippine Ambassador to China Jose Santiago Sta. Romana has welcomed the completion of the draft of the framework of the Code of Conduct for the South China Sea territorial disputes.
”This is a welcome development. Bilateral and multilateral efforts to address issues of common concerns can be mutually reinforcing for peace, stability and security,” Sta. Romana said in his opening remarks during Friday’s 1st Meeting of the China-Philippines Bilateral Consultative on the South China Sea at the New World Hotel here.
Sta. Romana lauded the senior officials of China and member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations for finally endorsing the clean text of the framework to the Asean foreign ministers.
Sta. Romana added that China and the Philippines engaged in a candid but friendly discussion where officials from the two countries tackled almost all contentious issues on the South China Sea dispute.
”There was no issue that was left untouched, almost. We touched on several sensitive issues but we didn’t dwell, we don’t impose on the Chinese,” he said.
”This is the purpose of this bilateral consultative mechanism: to discuss issues that are contentious while we proceed on the non-contentious issues in other fields that are making progress,” Sta. Romana, added.
Sta. Romana said the Philippines side raised the issues of arbitration, disputed Spratly islands and the Filipino fishermen’s right to fish in the disputed territory.
”There have been recent incidents in the South China Sea that we raised with them because it is a concern: the fishing rights, the behavior of fishermen, the treatment of the Filipino fishermen in the South China Sea and they clarified their position,” he said.
Sta. Romana described the first bilateral meeting under the renewed China-Philippines relations as an “excellent meeting.”
”Because it was very candid, it was very frank but at the same time, it was all conducted in a friendly tone,” the Filipino envoy to China said.
”I mean the differences we have with China did not arise in one night, neither can we solve it in one session,” he added.
Although differences were discussed during the three-hour meeting, Sta. Romana said the Philippines side and the China delegation headed by Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin, have found ways to discuss maritime cooperation in the South China Sea.
”So what we are trying to do is to create condition that we will create mutual trust and confidence and to build on a better foundation so that eventually we can resolve these issues although it will take sometime,” Sta. Romana said.
Sta. Romana said the Philippines and China will pursue possible areas of maritime cooperation in the South China Sea “without prejudice to our respective claims.”
”So this is the significance of this bilateral consultative mechanism that we can discuss contentious issues, we can discuss sensitive issues but we can do it in a candid, frank and friendly way. And at the same time, explore areas of maritime cooperation.''
He said the first bilateral meeting since President Rodrigo Duterte revived the Philippines-China relations was a big step in building a better foundation for the relations between two countries.
In a joint press statement, Liu and Sta. Romana initialed the Term of References that was reached during the diplomatic consultations between the two states’ Foreign Ministries in January this year to establish the Bilateral Consultation Mechanism.
Both sides agreed the BCM should be a platform for confidence-building measures and for promoting maritime cooperation and maritime security.
The BCM will comprise equivalent officials from the respective foreign ministries and relevant maritime affairs agencies.
The delegates agreed to hold the BCM once in every six months with the next meeting to be held in Manila later this year.
The two sides also agreed to address concerns, to handle incidents and disputes in the South China Sea “in an appropriate manner.”
”Such discussions are consistent with the October 2016 Joint Statement where both sides reaffirmed the importance of maintaining and promoting peace and stability, freedom of navigation in, and over-flight above the South China Sea,” the press statement said.
The two sides agreed to address the territorial and jurisdictional disputes by peaceful means, without resorting to the threat or use of force, through friendly consultations and negotiations by sovereign states directly involved on the issue.
It added that disputes will be resolved “in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law” including the Charter of the United Nations and the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos).
The Philippines-China relations has been rejuvenated following President Duterte’s four-day state visit in Beijing in October last year upon the invitation of Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Last May 14-15, President Duterte returned to China for the first Belt and Road Forum on International Cooperation. On its sidelines, the two Presidents held expanded bilateral meeting.
The Philippines-China relations hit a snag after the Philippines filed an arbitration case at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in 2013 to contest China’s ‘nine-dash line’ claim on South China Sea.
A month after President Duterte took his oath as President in June last year, the UN-backed arbitration court released its judgment in favor of the Philippines.
However, President Duterte decided to temporarily shelve the verdict to allow resolution of the maritime dispute through peaceful means and dialogues.
The senior officials decided to wrap up negotiations on the draft COC framework during last Thursday’s 14th Senior Officials’ Meeting on the Implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea in Guiyang.
The draft of the framework will be submitted during the China-Asean Foreign Ministers’ Conference to be held in the Philippines in August this year for the foreign ministers’ consideration.
The Philippines’ Department of Foreign Affairs also welcomed the finalization of the draft of the framework, reaffirming the Philippines’ commitment to working towards an effective COC.
“Many, many countries wanted it to be legally binding. But I’m saying let’s start with it being binding, gentlemen’s agreement. We have a community of nations which signed,” former senator, now DFA Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano, told reporters in Manila.
Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin, co-chairman of the 14th Senior Officials’ Meeting on the Implementation of the DOC, commended fellow senior officials from Asean for showing the “spirit of mutual respect and cooperation”.
During the meeting, Liu said the parties agreed to continue to advance the full and effective implementation of the DOC in its entirety.
He said the draft of the COC framework was an accumulated outcome of their efforts for the past several years and reflects the basic principles and spirit of the DOC.
Based on the DOC adopted in 2012, the parties reaffirm their respect for and commitment to the freedom of navigation in and overflight above the South China Sea as provided for by the universally recognized principles of international law, including the 1982 Unclos.
The parties concerned will also undertake measures to resolve their territorial and jurisdictional disputes by peaceful means, without resorting to the threat or use of force, through friendly consultations and negotiations by sovereign states directly concerned, in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law, including the 1982 Unclos.
The parties also have to exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability.
China and Asean member states may also explore or undertake cooperative activities, in such fields as navigation safety, search and rescue, marine scientific research, environmental protection, and combating transnational crimes at sea.
Under the DOC, the parties concerned reaffirm that the adoption of a COC in the South China Sea would further promote peace and stability in the region.
The Philippines was represented by former Consul General to Los Angeles and now DFA Assistant Secretary for Asian Affairs Maria Hellen Barber-De La Vega.
Other senior officials present were Emaleen Abd Rahman Teo of Brunei Darussalam, Kah Pharidh of Cambodia, Jose Antonio Morato Tavares of Indonesia, Phongsavanh Sisoulath of Laos, Joji Samuel MC Samuel of Malaysia, U Myint Thu of Myanmar, Busaya Mathelin of Thailand, Nguyen Quoc Dzung of Vietnam, and Singapore1’s Chee Wee Kiong, who co-chaired the meeting.
Aside from China and the Philippines, three other Asean member states—Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam—have overlapping claims in the potentially energy-rich South China Sea
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