MANILA -- The Philippines on Monday said a set of rules intended to prevent conflict in the South China Sea need not legally compel countries to follow it -- an issue of importance for the Chinese government.
Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. raised this possibility during a joint news conference with Wang Yi, his Chinese counterpart, in Davao City where they held bilateral talks to firm up preparations for President Xi Jinping's visit to Manila next month.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations and China are negotiating a code of conduct in the South China Sea. The 10-member bloc wants it to be legally binding, but Beijing prefers just "binding," ASEAN diplomats have said.
"Perhaps, we will not be able to arrive at a legally binding COC, but it will be a standard on how people of ASEAN and governments of ASEAN will behave with each other -- always with honor, never with aggression, and always for mutual progress," Locsin said.
Beijing and ASEAN member states Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam have competing territorial claims in the sea, which is a strategic pathway for global trade. It is also rich in fisheries and has oil and gas potential.
Locsin, the former Philippine ambassador to the United Nations, argued that the Philippines too made a compromise when countries in Europe rejected a legally binding treaty on migrant protection. "So, the best thing we could do is to say, 'Fine, it is not legally binding, but is a standard of conduct for how civilized we should treat migrants'," he said.
Philippines acts as the official bridge between ASEAN and China after assuming the rotating role of country coordinator in August. Manila will hold that job until 2021, and comes as the country enjoys revitalized ties with China under President Rodrigo Duterte's government.
Wang said China will abide by the code whether it is legally binding or not. He said China hopes to finish the negotiations before Manila's term as ASEAN-China coordinator ends.
"We welcome constructive opinions within the framework... that has been agreed," Wang said, referring to the general outline agreed last year, which dropped a reference to a legally binding code. The framework essentially repeats the spirit of a 2002 declaration on the South China Sea that called on parties to exercise restraint to avoid escalating tensions, and respect international law, among other things. Critics and ASEAN officials said the declaration failed to manage tensions in the disputed area because it was not legally binding.
In July 2016, China lost an arbitration case filed by the Philippines in The Hague over the territorial dispute. China rejected the ruling, and Duterte set aside the victory to pave the way for maritime cooperation in the area.
The U.S., Japan and Australia, wary of China's military buildup in the network of artificial islands it has created in the South China Sea, last year urged Beijing and ASEAN to come up with a legally binding code of conduct.
Without naming names, Wang told ASEAN to be "vigilant against and prevent interference and disruptions coming from the outside."
"They have never hesitated in stirring up troubles and waves in the South China Sea. They have been willful in showing off their force in these waters," he said. "We will not leave any chance to be exploited by external forces."
Speaking in Manila after a meeting with local defense officials, U.S. Navy Chief Adm. John Richardson said the U.S. will continue to operate in the South China Sea, a practice that has infuriated China. "We will continue to progress this program of freedom of navigation operations, and that is a worldwide program," he told reporters.
Nikkei staff writer Mikhail Flores contributed to this report.