China to host Asean in meeting on South China Sea

A Chinese navy formation, with aircraft carrier Liaoning, on a January drill in the South China Sea. China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan have claims on the sea.
A Chinese navy formation, with aircraft carrier Liaoning, on a January drill in the South China Sea. China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan have claims on the sea.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Aim is for preliminary accord on framework for code of conduct to ease tension over spats

China will host a meeting with Asean in May to come up with a "preliminary agreement" on a framework for a "code of conduct" (COC) meant to ease tensions over disputes in the South China Sea.

"Maybe by that time, we will have made significant progress on the framework," said Philippine Foreign Secretary Enrique Manalo at a news briefing on the sidelines of President Rodrigo Duterte's official visit to Thailand on Wednesday.

Mr Manalo said earlier that a draft of the framework - first broached during a senior Asean officials' meeting in the resort island of Boracay in the Philippines last month - is already being circulated to get Asean's 10 member states to sign off.

"I'm not saying it will happen, but the hope of everyone is that by the time we get to the meeting in May, the senior officials... may be able to already have at least a preliminary agreement on the framework," he said.

Mr Manalo declined to discuss specifics about the framework, except to say that it will incorporate elements already agreed upon under the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea.

In that declaration, the two sides agreed to "exercise self-restraint" to prevent actions that could "complicate or escalate disputes".

At the Boracay meeting, Singapore's Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said Asean was looking at concluding the COC framework by June this year.

A COC has been in the making since 2002, but talks have been slow, as consensus within Asean has been elusive and China insists on conditions that have made it difficult to reach a compromise.

Last year, following a ruling from a tribunal striking down its claims to nearly all of the South China Sea, China sought to have a COC framework ready by the middle of this year.

A COC is expected to lay down legally binding rules and guidelines on avoiding conflicts arising from rival claims by China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan over all or parts of the South China Sea, through which US$5 trillion (S$7 trillion) worth of trade passes through each year.

This comes as Mr Duterte reiterated that Chinese President Xi Jinping has assured him that China will not build structures on Scarborough Shoal as a "token of friendship".

Beijing denied a news report that plans are afoot to erect an "environment monitoring station" on Scarborough Shoal, a potential flashpoint in the South China Sea.

"I was informed that they are not going to build anything on Scarborough," said Mr Duterte at a news briefing shortly after he arrived in Manila from Bangkok just after midnight yesterday.

"Out of respect for our friendship, they will stop it. They won't touch it. That's what China said. Don't worry. We are friends."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 24, 2017, with the headline 'China to host Asean in meeting on South China Sea'. Print Edition | Subscribe