By Genalyn Kabiling
The proposed code of conduct in the South China Sea will be an “unavoidable” topic that will be discussed in the 35th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Thailand this week, according to Foreign Affairs Assistant Secretary Junever Mahilum- West.
President Duterte is scheduled to attend the regional summit from November 2 to 4 and could renew his pitch for the swift completion of the code of conduct of parties passing the disputed territory for regional peace and stability.
The President had previously pushed for the early crafting of the rules governing the conduct of nations in the vital waterway to reduce tension and minimize the risk of incidents and miscalculation.
“I think it will be featured in the discussions. It’s unavoidable. Kasi doon sa meeting na ‘yun ng mga leaders, they will have a parang tour of the horizon of what’s happening throughout the region so in all three pillars of cooperation: political security, economic, and then socio-cultural. So it will be discussed there and then I think we could expect the countries to give their positions,” Mahilum-West said during a Palace press briefing.
Mahilum-West, however, made clear there would be no intensive negotiations on the code of conduct during ASEAN leaders’ meeting with China. “But as to intensive negotiations, we don’t expect that will happen in this meeting – in these kinds of meetings,” she said.
Asked if the President will press for the swift completion of the code of conduct during the regional summit, Mahilum-West said: “I wouldn’t want to preempt what the President would say. But in terms of looking at the conditions, the situation on the ground or at sea in the South China Sea, for example, I think the President would be expected to say something about it.”
The ASEAN summit and related meetings with the theme “Advancing Partnership for Sustainability” will be held in Nonthaburi, Thailand, from November 2 to 4. The dialogue partners of ASEAN include China, Japan, South Korea, United States, India, and the United Nations.
A set of rules governing the conduct in the South China Sea are currently being negotiated by the 10-member ASEAN and China to manage the dispute for over two decades.
China, which claims almost the entire South China Sea, has stepped up reclamation works in the area in recent years drawing protests from other claimant nations. Four ASEAN members, namely: The Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, and Vietnam, also have claims in the area.
Despite nursing back pain, the President is expected to participate in several ASEAN meetings in Thailand.
“Apart from the ASEAN Plenary Summit, there are several other summits where Philippine participation is expected. These include the ASEAN Plus Three Summit and the East Asia Summit where leaders are expected to share their views regarding regional and international issues affecting our region and beyond,” Mahilum-West said.
The regional bloc will also hold one-on-one summits with China, India, the United Nations, the United States, and Japan “where we are expected to discuss the current direction of our partnerships and cooperation on mutual concerns,” she said.
Thailand, this year’s ASEAN chairman, is also expected to host a special lunch on sustainable development on Monday.
“In the afternoon, we have the 14th East Asia Summit to be followed by the ASEAN-Japan Summit and then the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Summit or RCEP,” Mahilum-West said.
At least 40 outcome documents that represent the culmination of the ASEAN’s work in pursuit of a more inclusive, equitable, and sustainable community are expected to be sealed during this year’s regional summit.
“There will be a handover ceremony from – of the Chairmanship of ASEAN from Thailand to Vietnam at the Closing Session on November 12,” she added.
Chief of Presidential Protocol and Presidential Assistant on Foreign Affairs Robert Borje disclosed that the Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. will represent the President in case he is unable to attend any of the ASEAN meetings.
“As of this point, we are prepared for all of the meetings. And we are under the assumption – working under the assumption that the President will be attending. And if he’s going to miss any of the meetings, then appropriate guidance will be given to us and then a representative will be tasked. Normally, if the President is unable to attend a meeting, it’s the secretary of Foreign Affairs who attends,” he said.
“But as of this time, the information that we have and the guidance that we have is the President will be joining the meetings,” he added.
The President will be accompanied by his partner Cielito “Honeylet” Avanceña and several Cabinet members during the summit.
“Madame Cielito Avanceña will be joining the President. There will be a Spouses Program and she will be joining the Spouses Program,” Borje said.
“But for ASEAN Meetings, the President is expected to bring with him the Secretary of Foreign Affairs, the Secretary of Trade and Industry, and the Secretary of Social Work and Development because these are the three pillars of ASEAN,” he added.
Apart from attending the regional summit, the President is expected to hold bilateral talks with some world leaders visiting Thailand. Mahilum-West said they are arranging the President’s bilateral meetings with some counterparts from Southeast Asia and dialogue partners.
“But since hindi pa ho na-firm up, hindi muna namin i-announce. But there is a team from the Asia Pacific Affairs Office of DFA that will take charge of all bilateral meetings,” she said.