Palace: Duterte wants legally binding code of conduct on S. China Sea

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Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque notes that the Hague arbitral ruling may not be mentioned in the code of conduct. (FILE PHOTO)

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, November 16) — President Rodrigo Duterte wants a legally binding Code of Conduct (COC) on the South China Sea, his spokesperson said Thursday.

"As far as we're concerned, we would want it to be legally binding. But we will see. As I said, it's only about to commence. We do not know what they will agree upon," Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said in a press briefing.

Roque was responding to reports that while China has agreed to start talks to draft the COC with other claimants, it wants the document to be non-legally binding.

"I think all the parties want it to be somehow legally binding. Otherwise, if it's merely aspirational, then it will not promote the kind of peace and stability that they are hoping for," he added.

The Presidential Spokesperson said Duterte has no specific timeline on when the talks would begin.

But Roque said they don't think the 2015 ruling of the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration will be mentioned in the COC. The ruling favors the Philippines' claims in the South China Sea. China has refused to recognize the ruling and has asserted its rights over the entire South China Sea based on its nine-dash line claim.

"What they could possibly adopt are the principles of freedom of navigation and the principles of overflight which are not necessarily forming part of the arbitral decision, because the freedom of navigation in high seas, and EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) is a general principle of international law as restated in the UN (United Nations) Convention on the Law of the Sea," he said.

Negotiations for the COC were announced at the 31st Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China Summit on Monday. Three other ASEAN member states are claimants in the South China Sea — Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei — as well as Taiwan.

During the ASEAN Foreign Ministers' Meeting in August, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said China's would leave it up to the ministers to determine the legality of the COC.

"One thing is clear: whether it is the 2002 [Declaration of the Conduct] or the future COC, all the 11 countries, once they put their signatures on the document, they shoulder responsibilities and they need to observe the document," Wang said.

READ: ASEAN, China agree to start talks on the Code of Conduct in contested waters - Roque

The outgoing ASEAN Secretary General, Le Luong Minh, told CNN Philippines in August, the regional bloc will push for a legally-binding code of conduct.

"For a COC to be effective, how can it be, without [being] legally-binding?" he said.

 

The 31st ASEAN Summit Chairman's statement released on Thursday brought back a provision that could be interpreted to reference the arbitral ruling. It "stressed the need to adhere to the peaceful resolution of disputes, in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law and the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)."

READ: 31st ASEAN Chairman's statement references international law in South China Sea

The ruling was not mentioned in the 30th ASEAN Chairman's statement in April. Experts then claimed ASEAN has softened its stance in the territorial dispute.

The Philippines and China also released a joint statement Thursday, after Chinese Premier Li Keqiang's official visit to Malacañang Wednesday. The joint statement stated both countries agree to continue to advance talks and negotiations on a COC in the contested waters.