During an exclusive interview with Tuoi Tre News in Hanoi on Thursday, Philippine Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. said he will disagree with anyone who will say that ASEAN is not fully and firmly committed as one unified regional group in so far as in ensuring their commitment and adherence to international law, to the peaceful settlement of the disputes.What is the significance of the visit, considering this is the first one for the President to Vietnam? President Duterte has made sure that one of his ASEAN visits will be Vietnam. This is because the Philippines, in particular the President, underscores the importance of the relationship. In fact, this year we celebrate the 40th anniversary of our bilateral diplomatic ties. And just last year we signed the strategic partnership agreement that will further enhance our relationship in the area of economics, trade, cultural exchanges, people-to-people contact, educational exchanges. At the very high level, we make sure to engage our officials in seeing how we can even strengthen our cultural activates, programs and projects. We are very happy to see how Vietnam through the years has supplied us with rice, that many investors from Philippines have come over here to Vietnam and we would like to underscore in the visit that there will be reciprocal interest from Vietnamese investors to come to the Philippines. This is how significant this bilateral engagement is, especially so when next year the Philippines will chair ASEAN and we would to make sure all of ASEAN member states, especially Vietnam, will help us in achieving ASEAN’s objectives of solidarity and centrality. We also would like to learn from each other. Vietnam will be hosting the APEC next year. Last year we hosted the APEC and we can make sure our experiences can be shared so that this very important international engagement will be a success.As far as I know, one of the issues of discussion in the visit is the South China Sea/East Sea disputes. Where are the Philippines now in this issue? We are very happy that the Philippines have successfully pursued their claims in the South China Sea with Arbitral Tribunal’s declaration to our maritime entitlement, which is known as our exclusive economic zone. We understand that Vietnam similarly has the same claims in so far as the portion which is in the area of the South China Sea, or the West Philippines see and I know that Vietnam refer to it as the East Vietnam Sea. We are very happy with the tribunal’s decision which is final and binding to all parties.
We have demonstrated to the international community our commitment to respect the international law, the UNCLOS 1982, and the peaceful settlement of these disputes. We are very firm in our commitment and adherence to a rule-based system in the settlement of the disputes so that peace and stability in the region can be preserved. Similarly, we are very happy that Vietnam has made the same commitment in ASEAN to the rule-based system and peaceful settlement of their claims in the East Vietnam Sea. While we are not taking sides in so far as our respective claims, we respect Vietnam’s claims as much as Vietnam respects our claims. But the most important thing is that the Arbitral Tribunal’s decision is our contribution in enhancing the jurisprudence with respect to maritime law and the interpretation and strengthening of the UNCLOS 1982 and other aspects of international law in this regard.How will the Philippines make use of the next year’s chairmanship to move the settlement of these disputes ahead? - We are very excited about it. We know that in the past there have been questions about whether ASEAN continues to be relevant, whether ASEAN to play roles of being effective, whether ASEAN will be able live by the principles and values for which its existence has been justified. There has been some doubt expressed in the past. But so far as the administration of President Duterte is concerned and my own involvement, particularly in the deliberations and meetings in ASEAN since we assumed office, President Duterte and myself as Secretary of Foreign Affairs, we’ve been encouraged by this development, especially so that ASEAN has been able to come up with a joint communiqué that has in the past has eluded them in so far as how we can move forward cooperatively in pursuit of the respective claims of the parties. And to fully implement what has been agreed upon, say the Declaration of Conduct and fast track for the Code of Conduct, to make sure these disputes can be settled in the future. So our chairmanship highlights the fact that we would like to move forward, we would like to strengthen ASEAN as an important regional body, we would like to pursue integration and we would like to make sure that indeed ASEAN will play its role as a key and central regional organization that is unified and that will only be undertaken for the interest of member states but also of dialogue partners as far as peace and stability are concerned.Not all ASEAN members are in favor of a collective approach to settling the disputes. What do you think about that? - Well, I think some ASEAN members are really trying to say that they don’t want to be involved in so far as the merits of the respective claims of the parties and rightly so. I do not think that we should express any causality for anyone to be against the others so far as sovereign claim is concerned. But I will disagree with anyone who will say that ASEAN is not fully and firmly committed as one unified regional group in so far as in ensuring our commitment and adherence to international law, to the peaceful settlement of the disputes. And that to me is very, very significant step and by itself is one important justification why ASEAN should continue and should forge much stronger relationships within its members and with its dialogue partners and the international community.As you clearly know, President Duterte mentioned that the upcoming military exercise between the US and the Philippines will be the “last war game”, and he also mentioned that there would be no joint patrol in the South China Sea. Afterwards, you made some “correction” to that. What exactly are we talking about here? - Let’s make two clear distinctions in the statements made by President Rodrigo Duterte yesterday. One is that, he’s been consistent from day 1 that there will be no joint military patrol with any particular nation in so far as patrolling the area in the South China Sea, especially in our area of claim for maritime entitlements. And he had made the distinction between this particular area and our area known as the territorial sea of the Philippines - the territorial sea being the twelve mile limit from our shoreline. And he said very correctly so. To engage the Philippines with another state, say the United States, in so far as a joint patrol in the area where we have made our claims, or the exclusive economic zone, can be considered as a provocative action by other claimants, particular China, which will impede the peaceful settlement of our disputes. And that to me is very important. And even the United States also say that they will leave us alone in so far as the peaceful settlement of our disputes with China, considering that even as we have had resounding victory in so far the tribunal’s decision but there’s no implementing arm to enforce this decision and even the 1982 UN recognizes that it should be continued on in bilateral engagement in coming up with agreements like a code of conduct so that these provisions, or rather implementation of the arbitral tribunal’s decision can be peacefully pursued and hopefully completed. So it’s in that aspect of joint patrol that the President said that. The other thing as we know is the joint military exercises that are part of our military agreement with the United States. That’s a totally different thing. The President said there will no longer be joint exercises. Well, as I understand in the context of the statement, this year we’re not going to conduct any exercises anymore. We’re already October, so joint military exercises are not likely to happen. There will be military exercises as agreed by previous administration. But in the future, when the president said that there will be no further military joint exercises in the area, he meant it in the context of the present situation. If the same situation obtains in the future, where every year under the mutual defense agreement there is a review whether or not these joint exercises could be made. Why joint military exercises necessary in the context of the mutual defense agreement? Because we are not engaged in a war. The mutual defense treaty is a contingency we’re under attack on any public vessel. But because there is no such kind of activity or intention to justify it, so we have to make sure we prepare for that kind of eventuality which we hope will not happen. Taking into consideration of the current situation, the President said there will be no joint military exercises. Remember the president of the Philippines is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces of the Philippines, and he has that decision to make. So that does not mean that there will be none should the contingency in the future arise, and the joint board that has been created under the mutual defense treaty will recommend for that joint exercise in the future. Forget about 2017 because it’s been decided [that there will be no joint military exercises]. But let’s look at the future prospectively and see whether the same context when the President made the statement will apply in the future.