Duterte to ASEAN: South China Sea incidents amid pandemic 'alarming'

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, June 26) — President Rodrigo Duterte sounded the alarm over maritime incidents in the South China Sea amid the coronavirus crisis.

"Even as the region struggles to contain COVID-19, alarming incidents in South China Sea occurred," Duterte said in his video message at the 36th Association of Southeast Asian Nations Summit on Friday.

Duterte, who has maintained friendly ties with China, did not go into detail. But he called on all parties to "adhere to the rule of law and to their commitments to international instruments, including the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea."

China has so far put up two research stations and sank a Vietnamese fishing boat in the South China Sea amid the pandemic. The Philippines also protested China's declaration of two new districts in what it calls Sansha City, which covered areas Manila claims and occupies in the West Philippine Sea.

ASEAN and China signed a non-binding declaration in 2002, but the regional bloc has been pushing for a legally binding Code of Conduct, which will determine the only allowable actions parties can take in contested waters.

Critics have pointed out little progress in the negotiations for a Code of Conduct due to resistance from China. In September 2019, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro "Teddy Boy" Locsin, Jr. announced that a draft has been reached as Beijing "softened its insistence on controversial provisions."

But there was actually "very little 'agreed' upon," with salient provisions left unresolved, said Gregory Poling, director of Washington-based think tank Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, in an earlier interview with CNN Philippines.

READ: Negotiations for South China Sea Code of Conduct a 'failed process,' expert says

The Philippines is country coordinator for the ASEAN-China Dialogue Relations until 2021. Aside from the Philippines and China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei also have competing claims in the resource-rich South China Sea.

In his speech at the ASEAN Summit, Duterte said they are facing "real constraints in dealing with the deliverables," but stressed that negotiations for a Code of Conduct are underway.

"We remain committed to work closely with the member states and China towards the early conclusion of an effective and substantive Code of Conduct in the South China Sea," he added.

During the ASEAN-China summit in November 2019, the regional bloc adopted the three-year timeline proposed by Beijing, eyeing completion of the Code of Conduct by 2022.