Department of Foreign Affairs Assistant Secretary for Asean Affairs Daniel Espiritu (PNA photo by Jess Escaros Jr.)

MANILA – Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo is set to assert the 2016 arbitral ruling as the Philippines' anchor to its actions in the West Philippine Sea in the upcoming meeting of Southeast Asian foreign ministers next month.

The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said Manalo would lead the Philippine delegation to the 55th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) Foreign Ministers' Meeting and related meetings from Aug. 2 to 6 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

DFA Assistant Secretary for Asean Affairs Daniel Espiritu said the Ukraine war, the situation in Myanmar, and the South China Sea are expected to top the issues ministers would discuss during the meet.

"Secretary Manalo (is) expected to assert the 1982 UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) and the arbitral award as the twin anchors of our actions and policies on the South China Sea," he said.

The position is a reiteration of Manalo's message on the sixth anniversary of the ruling and comes on the heels of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s first State of the Nation Address (SONA), where he vowed to protect the country's territory.

In the same presser, DFA spokesperson Ma. Teresita Daza said Marcos was "very clear" that the country would not preside over any process that will abandon even a square inch of Philippine territory to any foreign power.

China, under its so-called nine-dash line, claims most of the resource-rich South China Sea.

The Hague-based decision, constituted under the UNCLOS, ruled that the claim of historic rights to resources in areas falling within this invisible demarcation "had no basis in law and is without legal effect".

It also upheld the Philippines’ sovereign rights and jurisdiction in its exclusive economic zone. China, meanwhile, continues to reject the ruling.

UNCLOS in COC

At present, China and Asean are working on a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC), an upgraded version of the non-binding 2002 Declaration of Conduct which seeks to prevent the escalation of tensions in the area.

The two parties were only able to finish the preamble last year due to the challenges posed by the pandemic but Espiritu said negotiations are ongoing. The two are now discussing the text's general provisions.

"There is already progress on the objectives and hopefully, in the next few months, we'll be going towards the mechanics of the Code of Conduct," Espiritu said.

The official said finding consensus on "each and every line" of the draft is among the factors delaying the talk's early conclusion. Still, the fact that negotiations are continuous is already a "significant progress" compared to the past years.

"[T]he activities on these have started almost a decade ago. In fact, the concept came from the DOC in 2002 and so I hope we could understand that whatever slow progress we're making right now is already quite a significant progress compared to the last 50 to 80 years," Espiritu said.

"[T]here are many interests to consider our interests, other countries' interest and so, they would like to make sure that all their interest will be covered once COC is concluded. This will engage later on rules of engagement which could have an impact on sovereign rights and sovereignty issues. And so we cannot be doing all of these in haste and regret things afterward," he added.

There are no indications yet if Manila would also push for the inclusion of the ruling's mention, but Espiritu said: "[T]he important thing is that the Hague ruling is based on the UNCLOS and definitely UNCLOS will be a basis of the COC." (PNA)