PH top envoy hopes South China Sea code will be finalized in 1-2 years

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, November 24) — The Philippines' top diplomat expressed hopes the protracted negotiations on a Code of Conduct (COC) in the disputed South China Sea will be completed soon.

“I don’t have crystal ball. My hope is that in one or two years,” Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo told CNN Philippines’ The Source on Thursday.

Speaking at the 25th ASEAN-China Summit on Nov. 11, President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. called for the early conclusion of the COC as member countries mark 40 years of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and 20 years since the signing of the non-binding Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC). 

The COC aims to maintain peace and manage tensions surrounding the maritime and territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

Marcos also said it is vital that the UNCLOS continues to be upheld as the universal framework in all activities in the oceans and seas.

RELATED: Still no progress on South China Sea code of conduct after ASEAN Summit, Marcos says

According to Manalo, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, meetings on the COC were regularly held, but the health crisis caused a two-year gap in concluding the negotiations.

The country’s top envoy also said there are technical issues that have to be settled.

“Many technical aspects of exactly what activities would be taken to prevent any unforeseen events or incidents, as well as the processes of procedures that would have to be adopted and definitions. It’s quite a technical exercise because it would really be a code,” he explained.

With 11 nations involved, Manalo said it is also important that all these parties agree to have a code, and that Philippine authorities will make sure this addresses the concerns and interests of Manila.

“What’s important from our point of view is that it should be substantive and effective because we already have a declaration of principles on the South China Sea that was adopted over 20 years ago. We would like a code to build on that,” Manalo pointed out.

He said he expects 2-3 more rounds of negotiations before a final code is created.

According to reports, the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations and China were already working on the second draft of the COC last October.

In July, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told a news conference in Malaysia that China is speeding up talks with ASEAN, which includes the Philippines and three other claimant states, to come up with the code.

China insists on its sweeping claims over the resource-rich South China Sea, which includes includes the West Philippine Sea. An international arbitral tribunal ruling in 2016 invalidated China's "historic rights" claim to virtually the entire sea and recognized Manila's sovereign rights in areas of its exclusive economic zone that Beijing contests.

Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Vietnam also have overlapping claims in the waterway.