Draft of ASEAN Chairman’s statement leaves out South China Sea issue

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, November 13) — Leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) may leave it up to President Rodrigo Duterte to express the regional bloc’s position on recent developments in the contested South China Sea.

The November 11 draft of the Chairman’s Statement to be issued at the end of the summit leaves out the section on the maritime dispute. In its place are the words “Chair to provide” in brackets. It is unclear if this means the Philippines, as this year’s ASEAN chair, will have sole control of the text on this issue.

In a message to CNN Philippines Tuesday, Foreign Affairs Spokesperson Robespierre Bolivar said, “[The] Chairman’s Statement has yet to be finalized pending the actual conclusion of the Summit, so we will only see the final language of the Statement afterwards.”

Maritime expert and University of the Philippines professor Jay Batongbacal told CNN Philippines in a message that this indicated that the Philippines had not yet finalized its stand on the maritime dispute. 

“It looks like, this late in the day, the Chair has not settled on what position to propose on the [South China Sea],” he said. “It’s more likely to be passive, but might highlight [Duterte’s] recent remarks about the outcome of his talks with [Chinese President] Xi [Jinping].”

Duterte said the territorial dispute is “better left untouched” in his speech at the ASEAN Business and Investment Summit Sunday. He met with Xi on Saturday on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Meetings in Vietnam, where he was expected to raise the issue on the South China Sea.

"[The Philippines] as chair and proponent should take the initiative in drafting position, but this indicates it is not. So either it is attempting to drop, or at the very least minimize South China Sea concerns, or... it is placing the burden other countries to take the lead," said Batongbacal.

"This could possibly be due to China's displeasure with [the] last statement, which [Duterte] had to explain as being nothing more of his duty of relaying other ASEAN members' concerns," he added.

Related: Duterte: South China Sea issue 'better left untouched'

Batongbacal said the President’s statement that the issue should be “untouched,” and China’s guarantee of safe passage were  “a matter of concern.”

“That would mean taking South China Sea entirely out of the agenda of diplomatic discussions apart from the code of conduct process,” he explained.

ASEAN and China are expected to announce the start of negotiations for a code of conduct in the South China Sea when they meet later Monday. The code is intended to set rules of behavior in the contested areas as the sovereign claims remain unsolved.

Related: ASEAN Sec Gen: China, ASEAN may announce start of COC negotiations Monday

Other analysts are not optimistic that the Philippines will become aggressive any time soon.

Experts doubt ASEAN, China will reach Code of Conduct on South China Sea during summit

Gregory Poling, Director of Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, told CNN Philippines' Global Newsroom last week that there was "significant disappointment here and throughout the region... [with the] downplaying the disputes hoping that China would come to the table and play nice."

"That hasn't happened. This is just the latest in a series of escalations and disappointments over the last year that showed that China has no intention of rewarding the Duterte government for its policy," he said.

At the 30th ASEAN Summit in April, the Chairman’s statement removed the phrase calling for “full respect for legal and diplomatic processes” in resolving the maritime dispute that was found in earlier drafts. Sources told CNN Philippines that the Chinese Embassy in Manila had requested to take out the phrase which could be interpreted to refer to the 2016 arbitral tribunal ruling that affirmed the Philippines' claim in the South China Sea.

This raised concern among critics that the Philippines was going soft on its previously defiant stance to the eastern giant. After a shift away from long-standing ally United States, the Duterte administration has had warmer relations with China, pursuing bilateral talks and placing the arbitral ruling “in the backburner.”

The Philippines is just one of the four ASEAN member states who have claims in the disputed waters. Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei are also seeking to settle the maritime claims, as well as non-ASEAN members China and Taiwan.