Quoting Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario, presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said Prime Minister Tan Dung made the declaration during last week’s 20th ASEAN Summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

During the summit, President Aquino proposed to his fellow heads of state that ASEAN countries, particularly claimants to the potentially oil-rich islands, should settle the issue first among themselves before China can be invited for the discussions.

“When it was the turn of Vietnam to speak, Prime Minister Tan Dung stated that ASEAN should rush the drafting of the elements of the code of conduct after which China can be invited to discuss the COC,” Lacierda related.

He said that, “in essence, Vietnam supported the Philippines’ position.”

“There cannot be a bilateral solution to a multilateral problem,” Aquino reiterated to reporters in a sit-down interview at Sofitel Hotel in the Cambodian capital, where he was billeted for his two-day stay for the ASEAN summit.

Other than the Philippines and China, those with claims to the reportedly mineral-rich Spratlys include Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan.

Beijing prefers a bilateral approach to the problem, but stressed it was open to such a setup. It promised to “abide” by the collective action of the ASEAN with regard to the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties and COC in the South China Sea.

China made the assurance in a joint statement it issued along with the Kingdom of Cambodia during the 20th ASEAN summit, where it also expressed support for the creation of a Zone of Peace, Freedom, Friendship and Cooperation (ZoPFFC).

“China and ASEAN countries shall work hard to serve practical cooperation, maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea, and make it a sea of peace, friendship and cooperation for China and ASEAN countries,” the two countries declared.

Likewise, both parties “agreed” that China and ASEAN countries “ shall continue to abide by the purpose and spirit of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea.”

Beijing and Phnom Penh also vowed to “give full play to all existing mechanisms including the guidelines for the implementation of the DOC, facilitate its full implementation, and ensure the success of the workshop on the 10th anniversary of the signing of the DOC.”

Philippine Permanent Representative to the ASEAN Wilfrido Villacorta earlier said ASEAN leaders were very receptive to the Philippines’ proposal for a “multilateral” approach in dealing with China on the Spratly issue.

“I can say in general that there was no strong opposition to that, at most they just kept quiet. Remember, you are talking here about 10 member-states with different forms of government,” he told reporters in a briefing.

Lacierda downplayed speculations that Beijing might retaliate on other fronts, like the economy, by cutting or reducing trade agreements with Manila.

“We don’t believe it will have an effect. This is just a continuation of what the President has always said about the West Philippine Sea. China knows it,” he explained further.

Lacierda was with Aquino when he was invited for a state visit in Beijing in August 2011.

Villacorta agreed, saying China will understand. “It’s not hostility. China is reasonable also with regard to negotiations procedure. We have this territorial claim, but we are not an unfriendly country,” he said.

“If only for the (ASEAN plenary) session, the Philippines scored points. You should be proud as Filipinos,” he added.

The Philippines also expressed willingness to host a meeting among the six claimants to the Spratly Islands, including China, to arrive at a peaceful solution to the dispute.

President Aquino stressed this at the Retreat Session of the 20th ASEAN summit in Phnom Penh last week, the Department of Foreign Affairs stated in a statement posted on its website.

By Delon Porcalla - The Philippine Star - April 09, 2012