Duterte to raise South China Sea code of conduct at this weekend's ASEAN Summit

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President Rodrigo Duterte is slated to attend a series of meetings this weekend with world leaders in Bangkok for a regional summit, where he is expected to bring up the Code of Conduct in the disputed South China Sea.

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, October 28) — President Rodrigo Duterte is heading to Thailand later this weekend to attend the 35th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit where he will again push for the completion of the proposed code of conduct in the disputed South China Sea that has been pending for over 20 years.

Department of Foreign Affairs Assistant Secretary Juniver Mahilum-West said Monday that Duterte will attend a series of meetings with regional and global leaders in Bangkok from November 2 to 4, just a week after the President cut short his trip to Japan because of "unbearable" back pain.

Mahilum-West said the status of the code of conduct (COC) was an "unavoidable" topic between ASEAN and China.

"It will be discussed there, and I think we could expect the countries to give their positions. But as to intensive negotiations, we don't expect that to happen in these kinds of meetings," she said in a press briefing. "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.."

READ: Duterte 'disappointed' with slow pace of negotiations for a Code of Conduct in South China Sea – Palace

For decades, ASEAN has been pushing for a legally-binding code but progress has been slow mostly because of resistance from China about certain issues such as settling disputes and geographic claims of nations. Aside from the Philippines and China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei also have competing claims in the resource-rich South China Sea.

Parties to the code of conduct signed a Declaration of the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea in 2002, considered a political declaration meant to prevent the escalation of tensions in the disputed waters.

The Philippines is country coordinator for the ASEAN-China Dialogue Relations until 2021, and wants to complete the code of conduct within Duterte's term. In September, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro "Teddyboy" Locsin, Jr. said there was progress was on the matter after ASEAN and China agreed on a draft code. He explained that Beijing had "softened" its stance on controversial provisions.

Duterte on China: Is it right to claim entire South China Sea?

The accord would outline what countries can and cannot do in contested waters. Duterte also took up the matter with officials of the communist party of China during their visit to Malacañang in September, Senator Christopher "Bong" Go said.

No exceptions

In a separate event, retired Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio said passing a Code of Conduct should not spare China's illegal claims and activities under international law.

"It should not legitimize the artificial island-building by China on low-tide features and the severe damage to the marine ecosystem that China's island building has caused... The Code should not be a vehicle to allow China to recover what it had already lost under the arbitral ruling in the South China Sea arbitration at The Hague," Carpio said, referring to the landmark ruling of an international tribunal that dismissed Beijing's sweeping claims in the South China Sea.

Carpio, who was part of the legal team that brought the Philippines' territorial claim before The Hague, said that while the talks on the COC stretch longer, claimant countries may opt to do joint patrols — "an exercise of freedom of navigation" — to promote peace and security in these waters.

Former Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert Del Rosario added that China seems to be "adopting a delaying strategy" for the regional code of conduct, biding time so it can complete its "unlawful expansion and militarization strategy" in the South China Sea.

"China is not sure if the next Philippine President will adopt the same policy. So, China will have to make its move before the end of President Duterte's term in June 2022," Carpio added.

Pending the code of conduct, Carpio added that the Philippines, together with claimant countries Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia, could opt to sign a convention that would require all disputes to be settled peacefully or through arbitration, in keeping with international law. This would also "isolate" China in resorting to gray zone tactics, as the other states have their rules in black and white.

Attendance

Chief of Presidential Protocol Robert Borje said Duterte is expected to attend all of the events from Saturday until Monday night. They include regional dialogues and two business forums. Bilateral talks with other state leaders are also being firmed up, the DFA added.

"As of this point, we are prepared for all of the meetings and we are working under the assumption that the President will be attending," Borje said in a press briefing. Should the President decide to skip any of the sessions — as what he did in previous international engagements — Locsin is expected to represent him, he added.

Malacañang said Duterte's partner Honeylet Avanceña will be coming with him to attend a spouses' program there. Other members of the delegation will include Locsin, Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez, and Social Welfare and Development Secretary Rolando Bautista.

Duterte would meet fellow heads of state to discuss "regional and international issues affecting ASEAN," the DFA said, which will commence with a plenary meeting on Saturday. He is also scheduled to attend a series of summit meetings between ASEAN and China, India, the United Nations, US, and Japan, and Korea to assess existing partnerships with the region.

The ASEAN Summit will conclude on November 4, with Thailand set to hand over hosting duties to Vietnam.

CNN Philippines Correspondents Ina Andolong, Triciah Terada contributed to this report.