ASEAN leaders likely to go soft on sea feud in Manila summit

Posted May 08, 2017

DAVAO CITY, Philippines-A group on Tuesday hit out the government's planned deployment of 41, 000 security forces tasked to secure the venue of the 30 ASEAN Summit this week, saying it betrays "exclusivity".

Asean members are Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

China has been turning reefs and shoals in areas of the sea claimed by the Philippines and other nations into artificial islands, and installing military facilities there.

"China is confused and the worldwide community is intrigued", Renato de Castro, global studies professor at Manila's De La Salle University, told AFP.

Last year, the Philippines won an arbritation case against China over it's disputed "nine-dash line" claim to swathes of the South China Sea - a claim first put forward by the previous Philippine government in 2013.

Duterte, who is hosting the summit because of the Philippines' chairmanship of ASEAN this year, will make key decisions on the ASEAN chairman's statement and other outcome documents.

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The tough-talking leader has prioritized improving ties with Beijing, which openly welcomed the departure of Duterte's predecessor, Beningo Aquino, who had boosted strategic ties with the United States and staked out what some viewed as a confrontational strategy in the South China Sea disputes.

Still, President Donald Trump's move to roll back some of Barack Obama's USA engagement in the region has created an opening for China to talk up its role supporting growth and investment.

However, Jose did not deny that the South China Sea dispute and the conflict on the Korean Peninsula could be mentioned by President Jokowi in the summit.

"At least if there's a conduct and they would agree, so many things will be out", Duterte said.

Duterte's predecessor, Benigno Aquino, had challenged China by asking a UN-backed tribunal to outlaw Beijing's sweeping claims to the sea and its reclamation work. It's the second-largest island in the South China Sea's hotly contested Spratlys archipelago.

Duterte's predecessor, President Benigno Aquino, petitioned the court in the Netherlands in 2013, and its arbitration tribunal ruled last July that China's claim to nearly the entire South China Sea has no legal or historical basis.

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Analysts noted that the Philippines might be hesitant to provoke China given warmer ties between the two countries.

He said: "They (China) really claim it as their own, even a long time ago".

With Asean restoring a sense of public unity, "that strengthens the future" for the bloc, according to former Philippine foreign secretary Delia D. Albert.

"China wants to come up with a symbolic framework that says to America "Hey, back off, we're dealing with ASEAN on a very diplomatic level", but nothing significant enough to operationally restrict their ability to respond if the Trump administration takes a tougher position", he said.

"I will skip the arbitral ruling. What is at issue is the conduct of the parties in the use of South China Sea", he said. "The voice of President Duterte would be influential, but not the real basis of the Chairman's statement", said Villacorta.

"The Code of Conduct is a different story, it must be taken up", he said.

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