The Philippines rejected a demand by China to exclude the US, Japan, Australia and India in the final form of the Code of Conduct (COC) for the South China Sea (SCS) for which discussions got under way in Cambodia during the two-day ministerial meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

This is the first time ASEAN foreign ministers gathered on an in-person basis since the pandemic started in 2020.

For the past two years, ministerial meetings are simply held via video conference call or hybrid video call with limited in-person attendance.

“We want an early conclusion of an effective and substantive Code of Conduct in the South China Sea that excludes no country or power in the rest of the world,” Foreign Affairs Sec. Teodoro Locsin Jr. declared.

Before attending the meeting, China’s foreign minister served notice that Beijing would only vote for a COC that would omit mention of the US, European Union, Japan and Australia, which China called “fence-sitters” on the South China Sea dispute.

This demand was rejected not only by the Philippines but also by other ASEAN claimants of SCS such as Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei.

“Our face-to-face gathering shows we are on the mend but it will take time, if ever, for us to go back to the way we were. I don’t know if we can build back better.

I know we must recover what was lost,” Locsin said
During his intervention at the meeting, Locsin discussed a COC that would identify specific actions of six claimants to de-escalate tension and prevent a full-blown war from erupting.

The US, EU, Australia, Japan, India and other ASEAN members wanted SCS to remain open and that their ships and planes passing through the area will not be hampered.

About a third of the global trade transported by sea passes through SCS. Analysts predict that any disruption in the SCS trade would trigger a global economic crisis.

“The COC will not nor can it claim for itself the sea after which it is named. That would curtail the immemorial freedom of the seas and international law,” Locsin said, referring to China since the international name of the disputed sea still bears “South China” on it.

He cited Indian External Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar whom he met earlier this week in Manila and told him that “in this brave new world there needn’t be losers when others gain.” India is a member of the “Quad”—a loose alliance of the US, Japan and Australia — foreign policy experts say is meant to counter China’s growing power in Indo-Pacific.

It has been 20 years since ASEAN and China have agreed to have a COC. However, until now the only progress so far on the draft agreement is the Preamble.

Since then, China expanded its occupation by creating artificial islands on the rocks and reefs, and now equipped with military facilities and long-range missiles.

“We appreciate initiatives to finally advance the negotiations beyond the provisional approval of the Preamble,” Locsin stressed.

Locsin welcomed the proposed ASEAN-US summit this year, saying the leaders’ engagement with President Joe Biden will further strengthen the strategic partnership between the US and the regional bloc.

“The Philippines advocates and supports the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership to the United States for the most realistic and pragmatic of reasons: it remains, and in our view, it will stay the world’s leading force for the rule of law in international relations,” he added.
“As the way forward, the concept note provides a roadmap for initiatives and projects befitting the new era of ASEAN-US comprehensive and strategic partnership,” he added.