DFA Secretary did not want land reclamation, militarization mentioned in Joint Communiqué

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Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano. (FILE PHOTO)

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, August 8) — The Philippines did not want to mention land reclamation and militarization in the joint communique of the foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano revealed on Tuesday.

In a media briefing, Cayetano said the phrase in the draft of the communique was "not reflective of the present position."

"I didn't want to include it... They're not reclaiming land anymore, so why will you put it again here?" Cayetano said. "But since there was reclamation in the past, and you can start to reclaim again, and that was the general sentiment, I accepted it."

He also said he accepted the other ministers' inputs as ASEAN operates on a consensus vote.

"If I insisted that that won't be there, there's a possibility it won't be there, there's a possibility we won't have a joint communiqué," he added.

The 50-year-old regional organization has been criticized for its consensus style of decision-making, with analysts saying it hampers effective decision-making. While its members acknowledge the concern, they also say it guarantees solidarity in decisions and statements they come up with.

The joint communiqué, one of 32 outcome documents from the ASEAN Foreign Ministers' Meeting and Related Meetings, reflects the consensus of the ministers on issues concerning the region.

The 46-page statement released Sunday "emphasized the importance of non-militarization and self-restraint in the conduct of all activities by claimants and all other states."

Related: ASEAN ministers denounce land reclamation, militarization in South China Sea

The stand is a reference to Chinese structures over disputed islands, including Mischief Reef, which is contested by China and the Philippines, and Woody Island, which is contested by China and Vietnam, among others.

The communiqué of the 49th ASEAN Foreign Ministers' Meeting in Laos also called out against land reclamation and militarization.

However, an initial draft of the statement this year obtained by the media omitted that provision.

Cayetano maintained that no new land reclamation was taking place, saying that a tentative fishing agreement and plans on marine resource protection were in the works thanks to its warmer approach to the eastern giant.

"Before, everyone was building everywhere — now people are building on what they own, but no one is going to new areas. Land reclamations have stopped," said Cayetano.

He added that the harder stance of President Benigno Aquino III's administration against China was called for because land reclamation was still taking place. The previous administration brought the case to the arbitral tribunal in The Hague, which ruled in favor of the Philippines on July 12 last year.

Cayetano reiterated that while they have the same goals as the previous administration, they are using a different strategy.

"Just because a word is not in a statement... that doesn't mean our stand has changed and that doesn't mean we're not working towards that goal," said Cayetano.

"The Philippines, in building trust and mutual respect with China, is asking China to understand us. How can we do that without also understanding them?"

Under President Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines is pursuing warmer ties with China. The administration is also mulling joint development activities with China in the area. Bilateral talks on the South China Sea began in May, but the arbitral ruling was not raised.

PH won't raise arbitral ruling

Cayetano also said the country had no intention of raising the ruling any time soon, "because we won't make any progress."

"China already said, if you talk about the arbitration award, there's no talks. Would you rather that we be tough on paper and shove it in their face and nothing happens in the South China Sea, or would you rather we talk diplomatically and we get all the results?" said Cayetano.

He also maintained that their policy was not weaker than that of the previous administration, and they were "gaining ground" in pursuing national interests by approaching the eastern giant "in a friendly manner [and] building trust with China."

"If in one way, I'm using the decision and we're getting nowhere, versus not using the decision and using other means, other documents, other historical documents, but we're making progress — [do] you want to go back?" said Cayetano.

Critics and even other nations, however, may have reservations.

In a joint statement released on Monday, Australia, Japan, and the United States called on both China and the Philippines to abide by the ruling.

Related: Abide by arbitral ruling on SCS - Australia, Japan, U.S. to China and PH

Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono later clarified that they were not implying that Philippines was not heeding the ruling, but they were noting it was an important and legally binding decision.

Cayetano responded on Tuesday that although the three countries were "our friends... we will decide what is good for us."

"We are good friends [with] China... Japan... U.S., and we will appreciate not being told what to do, because we are a sovereign nation," said Cayetano.

Foreign Affairs spokesperson Robespierre Bolivar also said on Monday that he did not see a contradiction between the Philippines' stand and the concern raised by Australia, Japan, and the U.S.

"The President has stated on many occasions that the Philippines will respect the arbitral tribunal and will raise it with relevant sides at the proper time. So I don't see any disagreement between the Philippine position and the statement of U.S., Japan, and Australia," said Bolivar.