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Finalize the proposed SCS Code of Conduct




After President Duterte  appealed to China to temper its behavior in the South China Sea—referring to its warning off Philippine military aircraft flying over disputed islands, both natural and artificial — China immediately responded, saying it has a right to warn  off  foreign ships and planes tha come close to its islands.

Our President has long taken the position that while we stand by our rights in the South China Sea, especially our  sovereign  right  to the resources within the 370-kilometer Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ)  around our islands under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), we will not get involved in a  war with China over our claims.

His speaking  out on the  matter a few days ago was rather unexpected. He spoke after a Philippine military  plane was challenged and warned off when  it flew over a  man-made Chinese installation close to a Philippine-claimed island.  Reacting to the inciden0t, the President said in a speech in Malacanang: “You cannot create an island…  and then you claim that the air above  the artificial island is yours. That is wrong  because those waters are considered international sea and the right of innocent passage is guaranteed.”

China’s response was immediate.  The Chinese Foreign Ministry said  the Spratly Islands are China’s inherent territory  and it has the right to take necessary  steps to respond to foreign aircraft and ships that get close to its islands. The fact is China claims almost the whole of the South China Sea as its sovereign territory. It has a map showing a nine-dash line looping around the South China Sea and it includes part of the Philippines EEZ under UNCLOS.

The Philippines and the rest of the world do  not recognize  this nine-dash claim of sovereignty. And so the United States and other nations regularly send their ships and planes into the area, claiming freedom  of navigation in international waters. One of these days, President Duterte said, some “hot-head commander” might  just press a  trigger and start a shooting war.

For years now, China and the ten members of the Association  of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have managed to maintain  an uneasy peace despite their conflicting claims in the SCS.  China proposed a Code of Conduct to govern their conduct in the area, with  the aim of avoiding the accidental war President Duterte warned against.

The proposed Code of Conduct, however, has not been finalized to this day. It  remains a goal  which China and all the ASEAN nations affirm. But its provisions must be spelled out, including how to avoid challenges  at  sea such as the recent incident which caused President Duterte to appeal to China to “temper” its behavior in the disputed sea.

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