By Genalyn Kabiling
NONTHABURI, Thailand — China is “in accord” with President Duterte’s call for self-restraint in the South China Sea and a rules-based resolution of the territorial dispute.
Presidential Spokesman Salvador Panelo made the statement after the ASEAN leaders including the Philippine leader, met with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang during a summit in Thailand.
The South China Sea conflict, including a proposed code of conduct, was among the regional concerns and issues tackled during the ASEAN-China summit here.
“The President has been saying all along that every country must be rules-based, meaning we will have to respect international law. We have to respect the UNCLOS. We cannot be forcing others to succumb to another country’s power. In other words, we should be treating each other equally and fairly,” Panelo said during a press conference here.
Asked about China’s reaction to the President’s call for self-restraint in the disputed region, Panelo said: “I think the Chinese premier is in accord. He gives the same rules-based recognition of international law.”
Panelo however admitted that the President did not ask China to stop its incursions into the West Philippine Sea during the ASEAN-China dialogue. The arbitral ruling that nullified China’s claims in the South China was also not raised by the President.
But he insisted that the leaders attending the ASEAN-China summit have also agreed on the peaceful resolution of the South China Sea in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
He said China and ASEAN also agreed on the need for the early conclusion of the code of conduct in the disputed waterway to reduce tension in the region. They hope to conclude an effective and substantive code of conduct “within a three-year timeline or better yet, earlier,” Panelo said.
“You must remember China believes the entire seas around it are theirs hence they want to control it. The fact alone that it is opening itself to have a code of conduct where you will be observing certain rules that will be useful in preventing conflicts is good enough as far as I am concerned,” Panelo said.
He said China and the ASEAN leaders also agreed to uphold freedom of navigation and overflight over the South China Sea to keep peace and stability in the region.
“It recognizes the fact that if it does not agree to a code of conduct then there will be turmoil in this region, there will be conflicts, there will be fighting and I don’t think China would want that,” he said.
China claims almost the entire South China Sea and has stepped up reclamation works in the area in recent years. Four ASEAN members namely the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, and Vietnam, also have claims in the area.