Philippines says South China Sea ruling not on agenda at ASEAN summit

MANILA (Reuters) - An arbitration court ruling that rejected China’s claims to the South China sea and strained Chinese relations with the Philippines will not be on the agenda of this year’s Southeast Asian summit, a senior Philippine official said on Thursday.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (R) is shown the way by Chinese President Xi Jinping before a signing ceremony held in Beijing, China, October 20, 2016. To match Special Report PHILIPPINES-DRUGS/CHINA REUTERS/Ng Han Guan/Pool/File Photo

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte reiterated last month he wanted to avoid confrontation with China and saw no need to press Beijing to abide by the July ruling that went in favor of the Philippines.

“The Hague ruling will not be on the agenda in the sense that it’s already part of international law,” Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Enrique Manalo told reporters ahead of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meeting chaired by the Philippines in April.

“So we really can’t discuss the ruling. It’s there.”

The July 2016 ruling rejected China’s territorial claims over much of the South China Sea. Beijing declared the decision as “null and void”, but called on countries involved in the dispute to start talks again to peacefully resolve the issue.

What the 10-member ASEAN will focus on is the completion of a framework for a code of conduct to ease tension in the disputed waters, Manalo said.

“We hope we will have a pleasant scenario during our chairmanship. We will talk to China in a way we will put forth our interest just as we expect china will put forth theirs,” Manalo said.

Since 2010, China and the ASEAN have been discussing a set of rules aimed at avoiding conflict. China claims most of the energy-rich waters through which about $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year. Neighbors Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims.

At the ASEAN summit last year, China’s closest ASEAN ally, Cambodia, blocked any mention of the court ruling against Beijing in a joint statement.

Duterte made a stunning U-turn in foreign policy a few months ago when he made overtures toward China and started berating traditional ally the United States.

Reporting by Karen Lema; Editing by Nick Macfie