Ex-DFA chief, analysts 'disappointed' over draft ASEAN statement on South China Sea

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, April 26) — Maritime experts and the country's former top diplomat are disappointed over the draft of a key statement which will be issued before foreign leaders at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit on Saturday.

The draft of the ASEAN Chairman's statement, a copy of which was obtained by CNN Philippines on Wednesday, shows no direct mention of the arbitral ruling in favor of the Philippines against China's claims to almost the entire South China Sea.

Although it called for "full respect for legal and diplomatic processes," analysts say this indirect way of referring to the landmark ruling makes a "weak, watered-down" statement.

This call was also mentioned in the ASEAN Chairman's statement in Vientiane, Laos in September last year, and was supposed to set the stage for discussions on the arbitral ruling, foreign affairs analyst Professor Richard Heydarian told CNN Philippines.

"But neither Laos nor [President Rodrigo] Duterte seem to have been interested in bringing it up," Heydarian said. Laos is a known ally of China.

Heydarian said the Philippines failed to take advantage of its chairmanship to push for its claim on the South China Sea.

"It seems there has been no forward progress whatsoever and that the Philippines is going to take, at best, middle of the road position on the issue, despite the fact that the chairman has significant leeway in shaping and steering regional discourse," Heydarian said.

Former Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert Dela Rosario said the statement reflects badly on the country's chairmanship of the ASEAN under President Rodrigo Duterte.

"The draft of the Chairman's Statement is deeply disappointing and, if not revisited, would manifest an absence of the desired leadership," said in a statement sent to CNN Philippines.

On July 12 last year, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague awarded to the Philippines areas in the South China Sea that lie within the country's 200-mile exclusive economic zone, based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

However, China has refused to acknowledge the arbitral ruling and continues to claim the South China Sea in its entirety.

Duterte has promised to bring the ruling up with China during his term.

Draft subject to change

The draft also states ASEAN leaders share "serious concern over recent developments and escalation of activities" in the South China Sea, but it did not explicitly call for an end to militarization and land reclamations in the disputed islands of the South China Sea.

The summit, which happens at the Philippine International Convention Center on Saturday, comes after recently reported plans of Chinese construction in the disputed Scarborough Shoal, one of the islets and reefs in the South China Sea. The government has accepted China's pronouncement it has no official plans to build anything on Scarborough, also known as Panatag Shoal.

Should the government push through with its working draft, it would be a weak and vague statement to cap the ASEAN Summit, said University of the Philippines Institute of Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea Director Jay Batongbacal.

But with President Duterte's friendlier approach to China, Batongbacal said strong statements should not be expected.

"Ang dapat na lang nating tignan is ano 'yung magiging (What we should look into are the) actions of ASEAN subsequent to these statements," the Batongbacal added.

Heydarian said, "At this point, my sense is the Duterte administration doesn't want to rock the boat of improving ties with China and avoid alienating China-friendly ASEAN members."

Acting Foreign Affairs Spokesman Robespierre Bolivar said the tone of the statement can still change.

"Drafts can evolve very quickly especially since we are only a few days away from the Summit itself. The final version will be issued after the Summit, taking into consideration the views of all ASEAN Member states," Bolivar told CNN Philippines.

Related: Ex-DFA chief: Summit best time to push PH claim in SCS

ASEAN leaders release a Chairman's statement after every summit, summing up points raised during the meetings and the agreements forged.

Here are excerpts from the draft statement:

Regional and International Issues and Developments

South China Sea

100. We shared the serious concerns expressed by some Leaders over recent developments and escalation of activities in the area which may further raise tensions and erode trust and confidence in the region. We reaffirmed the importance of enhancing mutu al trust and confidence, exercising self-restraint in the conduct of activities, avoiding actions that may further complicate the situation, and pursuing peaceful resolution of disputes, including through full respect for legal and diplomatic processes, without resorting to the threat or use of force, in accordance with the universally recognized principles of international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

101. We reaffirmed the importance of maintaining peace, stability, security and freedom of navigation in and over-flight over the South China Sea.

102. We underscored the importance of the full and effective implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) in its entirety. We were pleased with the progress to complete a framework of the Code of Conduct (COC), in order to facilitate the early adoption of the COC within the ASEAN-China process.

CNN Philippines' Correspondents JC Gotinga and Anjo Alimario contributed to this report.