MANILA, Philippines (AP) — The Philippine foreign secretary said Wednesday that China has sought to restrict the presence of foreign military powers in the South China Sea and foreign involvement in oil and gas projects in the disputed region under a pact it's negotiating with Southeast Asian nations.
Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said in an interview with ABS-CBN News Channel, however, that China has eased up on those demands, removing potential obstacles in the conclusion of the so-called "code of conduct" that it's negotiating with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
China and the 10-nation ASEAN bloc have been negotiating the nonaggression pact in an effort to deter aggressive acts by Beijing and other claimant states that could spark a major armed confrontation in the disputed territories, which straddle some of the world's busiest sea lanes.
ASEAN and China have agreed to keep the negotiations confidential, although China's insistence that the proposed code should restrict foreign military presence and exercises in the disputed region has leaked out and been reported by some media outlets. At least two Southeast Asian diplomats have confirmed those Chinese demands to The Associated Press.
When asked about the code by the ABS-CBN News Channel, Locsin said the negotiations have been "very contentious for a while," with China insisting that no "foreign military power should be having military presence in the South China Sea" and if "you want to develop oil and gas, they'll only be with us."
"The reports we're getting now, is this, China is mellowing. It's no longer insisting on the exclusion of foreign powers. It's no longer insisting on this and that," Locsin said. "So I brought this basically to, you know, the enemies of China and some of our allies."
There was no immediate comment from Chinese or U.S. government officials. China has frowned on U.S. military patrols and exercises in the strategic waterway.
China has been accused of delaying the start of negotiations for such a regional pact for years. Critics say it only agreed to commence formal talks with ASEAN after Beijing completed building seven islands in the Spratlys, the most contested area in the South China Sea. The proposed code could have potentially restrained China from undertaking such major constructions in the disputed waters, the critics say.
Four ASEAN member states — Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam — along with China and Taiwan, have been locked in the long-simmering disputes, which escalated when China turned seven disputed reefs into islands that could serve as forward bases to project China's military might against rival states.
Opponents have played down the significance of the code, saying China would never sign an accord that would undermine its interests. But Locsin said China's easing up on some of its demands showed that "there is a prospect of a fair, just and objective code of conduct in the South China Sea."
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has told his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, that completion of the code should be hastened amid tensions among rival claimants, Locsin said.
Duterte "told him, 'This COC is taking forever. Can we rush this? Let's get this out of the way so that we can avoid all of these tensions and we know who's right, who's wrong when something happens,'" Locsin said. "Xi Jinping said, 'Well, why not?'"
Xi has expressed hopes the regional code could be completed in three years. China and ASEAN officials recently said they have completed the first of three expected rounds of negotiations.