The Philippines thrust the South China Sea dispute to the forefront of the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting yesterday, causing the topic to dominate discussions.
Myanmar by-elections and North Korea also featured prominently on the eve of today’s ASEAN summit, overshadowing the foreign ministers’ planned focus on agreeing in principle to a collective Human Rights Declaration.
Entering the meeting at the capital’s Peace Palace, Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert Del Rosario vowed to raise the South China Sea dispute because it “violates the UN resolution, for one”.
“Number two, I think it’s unacceptable,” he said.
Philippines pushes issue
In a statement issued during the meeting, Del Rosario urged ASEAN to agree on a code of conduct [COC] for the sea before approaching China to talk.
“The Philippines hopes that the Code of Conduct will be a real move forward not merely in terms of form, but more importantly in substance,” the statement reads.
De Rosario, however, said the “rules-based approach" established by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea was still a legitimate way of resolving the row.
Foreign Minister Hor Namhong said last night that the foreign ministers had discussed the South China Sea issue “a lot”.
“The meeting has agreed to . . . move forward on the Code of Conduct of the South China Sea,” he said.
“All Foreign Ministers have agreed in principle to resolving the dispute . . . peacefully and [according] to international law. The DOC [Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea] will [provide a] basis for the settlement of the dispute.”
Earlier, Hor Namhong had said negotiations with China should be held when it “expresses its will to engage”.
'Ready to engage'
Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said China seemed “ready to engage” over the dispute, which also affects Taiwan and ASEAN members Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam.
“It would be to our benefit to also be informed about China’s view on the subject matter,” he said, adding that ASEAN faces challenges in finding “ways and means” to get China’s views on such issues.
The Post reported yesterday that China supports a code of conduct but does not want to move “too fast” with talks.
Carlyle Thayer, politics professor at the University of New South Wales, said the South China Sea issue’s absence from the official agenda at today’s summit would not preclude it from featuring in discussions among government leaders.
“The fact the South China Sea is not formally on the agenda does not mean the issue will be ignored,” he said. “ASEAN has a standard operating procedure to disguise controversial issues.”
A model Myanmar
No stranger to controversy itself, 2014 ASEAN chair Myanmar was the subject of only positive attention yesterday.
Cambodia, in its role as chair, released a statement yesterday in which its ASEAN delegation to Myanmar praised the weekend’s by-elections.
All ASEAN foreign ministers congratulated Myanmar for having organised by-elections in a transparent manner.
“As far as Indonesia is concerned, we welcome very much the by-elections in Myanmar,” Marty Natalegawa said. “[They] offer an opportunity for Myanmar to make the reform process even more irreversible. So it is an important step in taking Myanmar to democracy and further reform,” he said.
Concern over DPRK
The air of satisfaction with the Myanmar elections was tempered, however, by concerns with developments on the Korean peninsula.
A number of ministers expressed concern with North Korea’s plan to launch a satellite, which some believe could be a front for developing missiles.
“I don’t want to pre-empt what the final outcome will be, but certainly insofar as Indonesia is concerned, we have communicated our concern about the developments on the Korean peninsula and the planned launching of the satellite by the DPRK,” Marty Natalegawa said.
Kao Kim Hourn, secretary of state at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said Cambodia wanted to ensure “peace and stability on the Korean Peninsular”, calling for all parties not to “take any action that would escalate tension”.
He added that Hor Namhong will visit North Korea in early June.
As for the long-awaited human rights declaration, Hor Namhong said that ministers had discussed it in the afternoon and made significant progress.
“We have had a meeting with the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights [AICHR] and we have agreed to prepare to release an [in principle support] statement on human rights, so AICHR can make its statement for submission to the state leaders within 2012,” he said.