Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has called for a code “at all costs” to regulate behavior of nations in the South China Sea and wanted China, which has set up military bases in the hotly disputed waters which it fully claims, to set a “route” for the region to take.
“So you are there, you are in possession, you occupy it, tell us what route shall we take and what kind of behavior,” Duterte told China on the sidelines of a summit of East Asian nations in Singapore where overlapping claims in the waterway was a key topic of discussions.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang told the meeting that Beijing hopes a South China Sea Code of Conduct “will be finished in three years’ time.”
The 10 members of ASEAN and China adopted a broad pact – the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) – in 2002 to exercise self-restraint and prevent non-militarization within the contested waters.
But efforts to pin down a specific sea code have been dragging on since then amid escalating tensions among South China Sea claimants.
Duterte, who is preparing to host Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Manila this month, said he discussed overlapping claims to the potentially mineral rich region during dinner with his counterparts Tuesday night at the summit hosted by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Four of 10 ASEAN member states – Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam – are claiming parts of the resource-rich South China Sea together with Taiwan and China, which claims almost the entire South China Sea and has built up several small atolls and constructed military bases on them.
The U.S. military has conducted regular patrols in the South China Sea challenging China’s claims of sovereignty by sailing near or flying over the reclaimed islands, triggering tensions with Chinese military vessels.
Last week, the top defense officials and diplomats of both countries met for talks in Washington to stanch rising tensions.
The U.S. then called on China to withdraw its reported missile systems it had allegedly placed in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.
U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton, who accompanied Vice President Mike Pence to the summit, said Washington would oppose any agreements between China and other South China Sea claimants that limit free passage to international shipping, the Wall Street Journal reported.
On Tuesday, Bolton said the U.S. will step up patrols and increase both military spending and the level of engagement with other countries in the region to reinforce its position.
Bolton’s remarks served as a warning particularly for the Philippines, which is in talks with Beijing about jointly exploring natural resources in the contested area, the report said.
In meetings to develop the code of conduct, China has tried to secure a veto over Southeast Asian nations hosting military exercises with other countries in the disputed waters and could raise the potential to limit U.S. military engagement with countries such as Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines, it said.
Duterte hinted that a current dispute between the U.S. and China was weighing on the security situation in the region.
“Everything has been excellent between China and the rest of the ASEAN except for the fact there is a friction between the Western nations and China,” Duterte told reporters, according to transcripts of the brief exchange released in Manila.
He said that China and ASEAN should work to finalize the code in the South China Sea because any “miscalculation” in the disputed area could lead to confrontations.
The United States is bound to the Philippines by a mutual defense treaty.
“Because of the treaty, I’d like to tell China, that is why at all costs we must have a COC (code of conduct),” Duterte said.
“ASEAN and China will continue to maintain a conducive environment for future rounds of negotiations of the COC,” said Duterte, whose country co-chairs the negotiations for the code.
In the meantime, he said both sides would continue to keep the peace, stability “and freedom of navigation and overflight.”
Also at the summit, ASEAN and China agreed to sign a “Strategic Partnership Vision 2030” which outlines a roadmap for a partnership through the next decade.