By Michaela Del Callar
MANILA, July 11 — Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) diplomats have agreed in principle on the key features they want to see in a new non-aggression pact on the disputed South China Sea and would soon negotiate with China to finalize the accord, Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said.
Such a regional Code of Conduct in the contested waters, referred to as West Philippine Sea by Manila, should be "credible, binding and enforceable," Del Rosario told fellow top diplomats, who had gathered in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh for the annual ASEAN ministerial meetings.
The Philippines had wanted any such new pact to be legally-binding and include a provision that would segregate disputed from non-disputed areas in the South China Sea and establish a dispute-settlement mechanism.
The 10-member ASEAN bloc has aspired to hammer a regional code with China that would prevent conflicting territorial claims in the vast potentially-oil rich region from erupting into violent confrontations or worse, an economically-devastating major conflict.
Such a goal has acquired urgency due to recent confrontations between China on the one hand and the Philippines and Vietnam on the other in disputed South China Sea offshore territories.
The territorial rifts are a top concern in the high-level meetings in Cambodia which would include the ASEAN Regional Forum, Asia largest security forum, to be attended by the 10 ASEAN member countries and 17 other nations, including the United States, China, Japan and Australia.
"There has been a meeting of minds among the ASEAN Senior Officials on the proposed main elements of the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea," Del Rosario said in a statement issued by the Department of Foreign Affairs in Manila on Wednesday.
"ASEAN will soon start negotiations with China on these elements," he said.
The overlapping claims by four ASEAN members — Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and China and Taiwan, had been a source of occasional flare-outs and feared to be Asias next military flashpoint. Other ASEAN members are: Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar.
Of the six claimants, China and Taiwan harbor the most ambitious claims, laying ownership to virtually the entire sea even as it impinge on other nations sovereign territories, a claim Manila says is a violation of international law.
Both the Philippines and Vietnam have accused China of aggressive behavior, intruding into its territorial waters, disrupting oil exploration and harassing its fishermen.
Del Rosario also called for the "effective implementation" of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, or the DOC, a non-binding political accord that would precede the proposed regional Code of Conduct. The accord was signed by the ASEAN and China in 2002 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
The 2002 accord discourages aggressive actions and bars construction of new structures in the contested region that could spark armed conflicts.
It also calls on the claimant countries to undertake joint projects, such as anti-piracy exercises and marine researches, to build trust and confidence and lower the risks of fighting among armed forces stationed in disputed islands and reefs.
Not one such joint project, however, has been started because of a lack of guidelines, which was finally forged only last year in the ASEAN meetings in Indonesia. Many regard the non-binding 2002 accord as lacking in teeth and a dispute-settlement scheme to effectively deal with the territorial disputes, sparking calls for a more effective and legally-binding Code of Conduct.
The United States, which declared the peaceful settlement of the South China Sea disputes as its national interest, has called for the enactment of such a strong legally-binding pact. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is expected to push for such a code during the ARF meetings.
During the ASEAN foreign ministerial meetings in Phnom Penh on Monday, Del Rosario told fellow ministers that there was a need for them to discuss a standoff between Chinese and Philippine ships that erupted last April in Scarborough Shoal off the northwestern Philippines because "it is important to maintain peace and stability and freedom of navigation in the West Philippine Sea."
Manila and Beijing figured in a two-month long standoff over the Scarborough Shoal or known in the Philippines as Bajo de Masinloc until President Benigno S. Aquino III pulled out two government ships two weeks ago citing bad weather.
Del Rosario added that "for archipelagic states like the Philippines, unimpeded commerce and maritime safety are important given that a quarter of the estimated 1.37 million mariners worldwide are Filipinos." (PNA)