SOUTH CHINA SEA CODE OF CONDUCT PRESSED AT ASEAN SUMMIT; PHL Navy expands patrols as Sino vessels continue to swarm at West Philippine Sea

By ALFRED GABOT, Editor in Chief

LABUAN BAJO, Indonesia – Amid a pledge of an ironclad protection of the Philippines from US President Joseph Biden Jr. in case of an air, sea or land attack following their bilateral talks at the White House, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. is pushing for a quick finalization of a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in Indonesia.

Marcos said there is an urgent need to finalize the proposed code of conduct to ensure stability and peace in the Southeast Asian region amid territorial conflicts sparked by China’s expansive claims in the region, including the continued swarming of China war ships, Coast Guard vessels and militia ships, some of which have encroached on the Philippine exclusive economic zone.

“When we talk about the issues on the West Philippine Sea, [the] South China Sea, things won’t calm down until we have a code of conduct,” Marcos told reporters.

The President said having a binding COC will make things clearer and reduce the possibility of miscalculations, hoping the regional bloc would be able to address the issues hindering the conclusion of negotiations which is a key element in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) centrality.

He said he brought up the need for a new code at the 40th and 41st ASEAN Summit in Cambodia last year.

Marcos said he would urge his fellow Southeast Asian leaders during the 42nd ASEAN Summit to find a way to push for the finalization of Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea (SCS) to ease tension in the contested waters.

“So yes, I will bring it up again because when we talk about – when we talk about the issues on the West Philippine Sea, South China Sea, hindi magkakalma ‘yan hanggang mayroon na tayong Code of Conduct,” President Marcos said.

The Philippine Navy, meanwhile, reported it has “increased the tempo of patrols” in the West Philippine Sea due to the presence of foreign vessels in the area. The Navy is also finalizing details of joint patrols with the US Navy, Japan and possibly Australia and the United Kingdom.

“We have improved the frequency of our patrols, I can’t give you the exact figures, but I should say our operational commands have increased the tempo of patrols,” Philippine Navy chief Toribio Adaci  said on the sidelines of a Maritime Security Symposium.

In a related development, Department of National Defense (DND) acting chief Carlito Galvez Jr. said there is a need for the Philippines to sustain maritime security in the Southeast Asian region to sustain the country’s economic growth.

“Ensuring maritime security in the region must not be viewed as our responsibility and contribution to (the) larger international community. We must view it as a way to sustain our economic growth for the actual benefit of our people,” Galvez said during the Maritime Security Symposium (MSS) hosted by the Philippine Navy (PN) at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Taguig City.

On April 23, a China Coast Guard ship number allegedly blocked the path of BRP Malapascua in waters around Ayungin Shoal. The Philippine Coast Guard reported that the foreign vessel was 50 yards from a deadly point of collision with the Philippine’s much smaller ship.

The PCH also said 18 Chinese maritime militia (CMM) vessels were detected near Sabina Shoal. The coast guard said it had driven away 4 other CMM vessels, which appeared to be engaged in fishing activities, from the territorial sea of Pag-asa Island.

Some 100 more CMMs were also observed near Julian Felipe Reef, the coast guard said.

Asked about the challenges in coming up with a binding COC, the President said what complicates things are the separate bilateral negotiations between ASEAN member-states and China and these have to be resolved.
Marcos acknowledged that the negotiations for the COC in the SCS is “separate from the ASEAN Summit.”

“Ah no, the Code of Conduct – the negotiation of the Code of Conduct is separate from the ASEAN Summits. They negotiate in another way. So that’s not something that we will be done here at this time. What we need to do is look kung wala pa, ano ba talaga ang nagiging problema? This is what we have to discuss amongst ourselves. What is the problem? What is the bottleneck? Where are we having a hard time? How can we fix that problem?” he said.

“That’s what these meetings should be for and I think we’ll get to that point because everybody wants this to work, everybody wants to have a Code of Conduct. So what’s getting in the way, let’s talk about it,” he added.

During the ASEAN Summit last year, President Marcos Jr. pushed for the early conclusion of a COC in the South China Sea based on international law, which he said should be an example of how states manage their differences.

“You know, iba-ibang bansa ‘yan eh and everyone has a different agenda. But if we talk about it and with a common thought in mind, I think we will get there. But I hope sooner rather than later because the tensions are increasing,” the President said.