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ASEAN declines to join in new SCS dispute

In recent weeks, there has been a stepped-up exchange of words between officials of the United States and China on the South China Sea.

In the wake of the 4th anniversary of the 2016 ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague rejecting China’s territorial and maritime claims in the South China Sea, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said , “We are making clear: Beijing’s claims to offshore resources across most of the South China Sea are completely unlawful.”

He added: “We will support countries all across the world who recognize that China has violated their legal territorial claims and maritime claims as well…. We will provide them the assistance we can, whether that’s in multilateral bodies, whether that’s in ASEAN, whether that’s through legal responses. We will use all the tools we can….”

Pompeo’s statement reversed decades of neutrality on the SCS disputes involving China and countries around the South China Sea, notably the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei. In 2014, years before the Arbitral Court decided on the matter, then US President Barack Obama, in a press conference with then Philippine President Benigno Aquino III, had said in answer to a query on the SCS disputes: “We don’t even take a specific position on the disputes between nations.”

Over the years, the US sent its ships sailing through various parts of the South China Sea in assertion of freedom of navigation in international waters. But now, it seems to have stepped up its confrontation with China , with US President Trump raising other issues, including blaming China for the COVID-19 pandemic which he insisted on calling the “China virus.”

It is believed that the intended audience of Secretary Pompeo’s declaration on the South China Sea are the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its member countries, but these have kept their silence on this new development. Vietnam and other nations with existing disputes with China have refrained from reacting to Secretary Pompeo’s statement.

Our own President Duterte, speaking through presidential spokesman Harry Roque, said: “The great powers, as they escalate their rivalry, will woo us to their side. But we will advance our own national interest.”

ASEAN has long followed a course of peaceful dialogue and negotiations on SCS disputes while the member nations’ cooperation with China continues. They have agreed to draw up a Code of Conduct on the South China Sea to resolve any problem that may arise over their conflicting claims. Meanwhile, they have an agreement with China on mutual aid, including its $2-billion COVID-19 fund and economic recovery. The Philippines looks forward to a share of the vaccine now undergoing final testing in China and on the early revival of our exports to that country.

Secretary Pompeo’s declaration has not drawn any support from ASEAN. We will stick to the policy of negotiation on conflict as we carry on with cooperation in areas where we share a common interest, such as in the fight against the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

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