When the leaders of the member-states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) gather this weekend in Kuala Lumpur, their agenda will be dominated by the launch of the 10-year roadmap toward the realization of the Asean Community. But, apart from regional economic integration, President Aquino has other things in mind. The Asean summit offers him another opportunity to bring up the issue of China’s aggressive moves in the South China Sea. Hopefully, he will get his colleagues to conclude the protracted discussion of a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea as a concrete achievement in political and security cooperation.
This was an issue he first sharply brought to the Asean table at the 20th Asean summit in 2012 in Phnom Penh. For the first time in its history, the consensus-oriented regional bloc failed to issue a joint communiqué at the end of its meeting after the host country decided to take up the cudgels for China. This was a moment when semantics could not come to the aid of diplomacy.
That Cambodian summit conveyed in no uncertain terms P-Noy’s determination to hold China accountable for its actions under international norms. His dogged pursuit of the South China Sea issue at that meeting, which he did in the politest terms possible, deviated from the customary practice of issuing muffled official protests while signaling a readiness to settle disputes through bilateral talks. It was a sharp departure from the policy that had characterized his predecessor’s cozy relationship with China. Not too long after the Cambodian encounter, the Philippines filed an arbitration case against China under the terms of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos).