ASEAN to concentrate on code of conduct amid Trump’s mediation offer

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, November 12) — The Philippines thanked the United States for its  offer to mediate negotiations in the  South China Sea maritime dispute — but the matter still needs to be discussed by members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

“We cannot speak as Chair of ASEAN what will be the consensus or what will be the reply of everyone. But I think everyone welcomes the offer,” Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano said on Sunday.

“The claimant countries have to answer as a group or individually, and not one country can just give an instant reply, because mediation involves all of the claimants and non-claimants.”

U.S. President Donald Trump offered his help in resolving the long-standing row in the South China Sea in a speech in Vietnam, saying he was "a very good mediator and arbitrator."

However, the Philippines thanked Trump for the “very kind, generous offer, because he is a good mediator,” Cayetano said.

The secretary said ASEAN was taking “giant steps forward” in talking about the code of conduct, which will set the rules of behavior in the contested area even as the sovereign claims there remain unresolved.

“The focus of ASEAN now is getting the [code of conduct] done,” said Cayetano.

“Patong patong ang issues [The issues are piling up],” he added. “The issues are so complex and intersecting that what President Duterte wanted to do is to lower the temperature, get people talking, stop people from claiming more features and occupying and building. It's working.”

China and ASEAN finalized a framework for the code in August. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that consultations for the code would begin within the year, but negotiations will proceed "if there is no major disruption from outside parties."

Related: ASEAN, China adopt framework for South China Sea code of conduct

In his recent visit to Beijing, Trump said that he and Chinese President Xi Jinping had "very good chemistry" despite their clashing views on trade.

Referring to the Philippines and the  U.S., Cayetano said that although countries may have different interests, relations could improve “when leaders like each other.”

“Diplomacy in the end is also personal relations… There’s no doubt there were some ill feelings -- some hills and valleys in our relationship with the U.S., especially at the latter end of the Obama administration, but it’s been repaired and strengthened with President Trump,” he noted.

The U.S., a long-time ally of the Philippines, strongly opposed Chinese expansion in the South China Sea under former President Barack Obama’s administration.

However, bilateral relations soured after Obama criticized Duterte’s bloody war on drugs and Duterte told him to “go to hell.”