NAYPYITAW - Asean foreign ministers, "seriously concerned'' over recent increased tension in the disputed South China Sea, have called for real progress on a long-delayed Code of Conduct (COC) between Asean and China to lay down rules of engagement in the area.
They also called on Indonesia to ratify the Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution, and endorsed growing trade and business links between the regional body and the United States as well as China.
In a joint communiqué issued on Sunday morning following the 47th Asean Ministerial Meeting (AMM) in Myanmar's capital, the ministers "urged all parties concerned to exercise self-restraint and avoid actions which would complicate the situation and undermine peace, stability, and security in the South China Sea.''
Disputes should be settled through peaceful means - dialogue, consultations and negotiations under recognised international law - without resorting to the threat or use of force, the statement said.
China claims almost the entire South China Sea, but four Asean nations - most crucially Vietnam and the Philippines - claim parts of it. Tension has spiked recently with skirmishes at sea between Vietnamese and Chinese vessels, which sparked anti-Chinese riots in Vietnam in May.
The Philippines has arrested Chinese fishermen in the disputed waters and sought international arbitration, which has riled Beijing.
The other Asean claimants in South China Sea are Malaysia and Brunei.
China wants what it calls a "dual track'' approach to resolving competing claims - direct talks with rival claimants, and collective talks with Asean to "work together to uphold peace and stability in the South China Sea''.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has insisted that the 2002 Declaration of Conduct (DOC) on the South China Sea, signed by Asean and China, should be properly implemented and observed.
The DOC says all parties will act with self-restraint, avoid actions that cause, complicate or escalate disputes, and settle disputes peacefully. The COC is supposed to be more binding. Officials say so far, it is China which has dragged its feet on negotiating a COC. But Beijing maintains that the DOC itself should be properly implemented first.
The situation is complicated by each party - China, Vietnam and the Philippines - assuming the right to any activity in its claimed area,and accusing the other of provocation.
The Asean foreign ministers said they had agreed to intensify consultation with China on effective implementation of the DOC and also to push "substantive negotiations for the early conclusion'' of the long-delayed COC.
The ministers have tasked officials to work on "concrete elements (in the COC) which would promote trust and confidence, prevent incidents, (and) manage incidents should they occur.''
"We underscored the importance of maintaining the momentum of consultations,'' the statement said.