'We must act with haste:' Duterte presses ASEAN on code of conduct in South China Sea

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, November 12) — President Rodrigo Duterte made a fresh call to pass a code of conduct to govern behavior in the disputed South China Sea at a summit of Southeast Asian leaders on Thursday, saying it was an urgent concern.

"As I have said before, the South China Sea issue is ASEAN’s strategic challenge. How we deal with this matter lays bare our strengths and weaknesses as a community. We must act with haste," Duterte said during his remarks before the virtual summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations on Thursday.

The 10-member ASEAN has been in talks with Beijing for nearly two decades over the nonaggression pact aimed at preventing clashes from erupting in the disputed waters. Progress has been slow, largely due to resistance from China, which claims virtually the entire sea.

"The Philippines is one with ASEAN in transforming the South China Sea into a sea of peace and prosperity for all," Duterte said. "We are committed to the immediate conclusion of a substantive and effective Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. And if I may add, it has been a long time and it is a long wait."

Duterte also flagged the need for a "politically cohesive" ASEAN, saying it forms part of the region's peace and security agenda. "We have made significant progress towards this goal. But the current geopolitical landscape creates challenges to our claim of centrality," he said.

In 2016, the Philippines won a landmark arbitration ruling that dismissed China's sweeping claims in the South China Sea, acknowledging that islands and features in the West Philippine Sea that are being claimed by Beijing fall within Manila's exclusive economic zone.

READ: Biden-led US likely to uphold PH arbitral win in South China Sea

Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and self-governing Taiwan also have their own territorial claims in the South China Sea, a strategic waterway for trade that is also believed be rich in oil and gas deposits.

Duterte told state leaders that it is "crucial" to "consolidate ASEAN’s position in the evolving regional order," adding that they must resist "external powers" that seek to divide alliances.

"We must, therefore, remain united. We must show that we are masters of our region’s destiny and that we can work together to achieve shared aspirations and solve common problems," he added.

Duterte serves as the country coordinator for the ASEAN-China Dialogue Relations. In an afternoon session, he thanked China on behalf of the region for its contributions on COVID-19 response and sought close collaboration on the development and distribution of vaccines.

"The Philippine position is clear and firm. We must solve the disputes peacefully and in accordance with international law, including UNCLOS," the President added, referring to the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea –– the basis of the country's victory before an arbitral tribunal in The Hague.

READ: Duterte gov’t may reconsider ban on joining South China Sea drills

China has been insisting on historical ownership of the sea using its "nine-dash line" map, which claimant states have not recognized.

Duterte and Chinese President Xi Jinping have said that they will “agree to disagree” on the issue and set the ruling aside, focusing instead on opportunities for cooperation such as the planned joint oil exploration at Recto Bank.

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"The 2016 Arbitral Award on the South China Sea is an authoritative interpretation of the application of UNCLOS. It is now part of international law. Its significance cannot be diminished nor ignored by any country, however big and powerful," the President said in his speech.

The Philippines' Department of Foreign Affairs has been filing diplomatic protests against China for its repeated incursions in the West Philippine Sea, such as illegal reclamation and island-building activities and for harassing Filipino fishermen in the area.

READ: Duterte bats for unified COVID-19 recovery framework, stronger climate change response in ASEAN summit