China claimed victory at the recent ASEAN meeting in Laos just because the arbitral ruling that favored the Philippines over it on the West Philippine Sea issue was not included in a joint ASEAN statement.
At first, the Philippines and Vietnam wanted the ASEAN communiqué to include The Hague ruling. Aside from the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, and Taiwan also have rival claims on the waters mostly claimed by China.
News reports have pointed to a decision allegedly initiated by the Philippines itself to break the deadlock that hindered the Southeast Asian nations from making any headway by just dropping the matter altogether.
The participating 10 Asian countries were in a dilemma whether to push through with their own claims against China on the said waterway or foster economic and political ties with Beijing that has become increasingly assertive.
After Cambodia objected to the inclusion of the historic arbitral tribunal ruling in their joint statement, the Philippines allegedly decided to drop its request altogether. A Philippine Daily Inquirer report even noted that China publicly thanked Cambodia for their support.
But in a press conference at the Department of Foreign Affairs on July 27, Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay categorically denied China’s claim of victory in the ASEAN meeting just because The Hague ruling was not included in ASEAN statement.
“I am saying this to dispel the reports in being said that China came out victorious… precisely because we did not agree to mention the arbitral award,” Yasay said.
Asked if he did all he could to have the arbitral ruling included in the ASEAN statement, Secretary Yasay replied, “Yes. Vigorously. I pushed for the inclusion and mentioning of the arbitration award. Again, this was a diplomatic tact that must be made.”
In fact, he said he told his ASEAN counterparts how “(the tribunal ruling) provided a solid legal foundation on which a rules-based approach for resolving disputes in the South China Sea can be built,” adding the tribunal ruling, which was “final and binding [on] all parties concerned, is a clearly established fact” and had “significant implications for the entire region, not just the coastal states bordering the South China Sea.”
If included in the joint ASEAN statement, it could “not only reflect Asean respect for a rules-based order, but also reaffirm Asean’s “centrality and solidarity in the regional security architecture.”
But what happened was that Cambodia opposed the idea which later led to a watered-down statement merely stressing the need for peaceful resolutions of issues on the South China Sea according to international laws, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea or UNCLOs included.
However, one Asean diplomat said the Philippines agreed to drop or omit the reference to the ruling in the statement, to try to prevent a disagreement leading to the Asean failing to issue a statement.
“The Arbitral award is a matter between China and the Philippines. The purpose of Asean was simply to address the South China Sea issue in terms of trying to resolve it, consistent with the general laws,” Yasay added.