Progress made in South China Sea Code of Conduct as Beijing eases up on demands – Locsin

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, September 25) — China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have agreed on a draft of the Code of Conduct in the disputed South China Sea.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Tedoro "Teddy Boy" Locsin, Jr. said this was made possible after Beijing "softened its insistence on controversial provisions" that earlier delayed the passage of the accord, which would outline what countries can and cannot do in contested waters.

"Their objectionable provisions excluding the Western military presence... they're not holding on to that anymore," Locsin said in an event of the Asia Society in New York City Wednesday. He was interviewed by Kevin Rudd, a leader of the organization and former Prime Minister of Australia.

While negotiations on the code were not classified, Locsin earlier said in a television interview that among China's demands is that no "foreign military power" should have military presence in the South China Sea.

Locsin also said China wants to be involved in all oil and gas development projects in the region. The Philippines and China are now planning a joint exploration in disputed areas.

Locsin recalled that during Duterte's bilateral meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in August, he "expressed his annoyance at the slowness of negotiations" for the Code of Conduct. Duterte and Xi agreed committed to adopt the Code of Conduct "at an early date," state-run Xinhua reported.

Malacañang said the two leaders aim to pass the code within the last three years of the Duterte presidency.

"Negotiations went smoothly after. The first draft is complete," Locsin disclosed on Wednesday. He did not explain what the next steps would be.

'Manual for living with a hegemon'

Locsin, however, shared another diplomat's view that ASEAN's negotiations with China depicts the East Asian giant as the "hegemon."

"An Asian foreign counterpart of mine said, or maybe I put it in his mouth, that even a good COC is still a Chinese COC because it is all about how Southeast Asia and China will engage with each other and no one else. It is implicit recognition of China's hegemony," Locsin said.

"In short, a manual for living with a hegemon or the care and feeding of the dragon in your living room," he added.

The ASEAN has been pushing for a legally binding code for decades but progress has been slow because of resistance from China. Aside from the Philippines and China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei also have competing claims in the resource-rich South China Sea. The Philippines is country coordinator for the ASEAN-China Dialogue Relations until 2021.

The US does not claim any part of the South China Sea, but conducts freedom of navigation operations and calls out China's alleged militarization of contested areas. In the West Philippine Sea which the Philippines claims and occupies, China has built artificial islands, blocked Filipino fishermen from fishing, and 'interfered' in oil exploration.

Beijing continues to reject the arbitration ruling that invalidated its sweeping claim to almost the entire South China Sea and recognized Manila's sovereign rights to some areas in the West Philippine Sea, which China contests.

READ: China rejects PH arbitral victory on South China Sea anew