Tokyo - Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on Sunday laid down his priorities as this year’s chairman of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, calling regional counterparts to uphold maritime security and cooperation and promote open trade. Leading the formal launch of the Philippine chairmanship in the southern city of Davao, where he was a mayor for 22 years before being elected president last year, Duterte said ASEAN “must strive for a region that promotes and maintains peace, security and stability.” Countries should also adhere to rule of law for peaceful resolution of disputes and the preservation and protection of maritime resources, according to press materials provided by his office. Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay last week said ASEAN members and China are expected to agree on a long overdue “framework” code of conduct on the South China Sea, as part of the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. The strategic waterway, home to diverse marine life and a thoroughfare for around $5 trillion in annual global trade, has become a flashpoint of conflict in recent years as ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and China became increasingly assertive of their overlapping territorial claims.
Beijing, which is claiming ownership over nearly the entire waterway, has reclaimed at least seven artificial islands and built runways and other military installations on them. ASEAN diplomats have previously accused Beijing of delaying the code of conduct. But Yasay last week said confidence-building measures initiated by the Philippines have made the difference. The Philippines won a landmark arbitration case in July that voided China’s expansive claim over the South China Sea, but Duterte opted to put the legal victory on the back burner to pave way for bilateral negotiations. The territorial dispute has also drawn in superpowers like U.S. and Japan, which are wary of Beijing’s expansionism. Washington in 2015 announced “freedom of navigation operations” near the artificial islands, angering Beijing and ratcheting up tensions in the area. But Duterte on Sunday said: “I also call on ASEAN Dialogue Partners to renew their dedication to the valued purposes and principles stated in the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation -- including noninterference -- in promoting regional peace and stability through abiding respect for the rule of law.”