Asean Regional Forum

S-E Asian ministers endorse framework of S. China Sea code

The framework of a code of conduct (COC) meant to prevent conflicting territorial claims in the South China Sea from erupting into violence was yesterday endorsed by foreign ministers from South-east Asia.

But they did not come to a consensus on a joint statement initially scheduled to be released after they wrapped up talks yesterday, as Vietnam insisted on taking a strong stand against Chinese expansionism in the waterway and Cambodia had yet to cast its vote.

Philippine Foreign Affairs spokesman Robespierre Bolivar said in a text message that this joint communique will instead be issued together with the chairman's statements by the end of the Asean Regional Forum on Tuesday.

As for the COC framework, Mr Robespierre said the two-page document will be discussed in a dialogue today between the 10-member Asean and China, where it is expected to be endorsed as well. Following this, Asean and China are expected to take steps towards actual negotiations for a COC.

The framework, which was seen by The Sunday Times, emphasises that the COC "is not an instrument to settle territorial disputes or maritime delimitation issues".

Instead, it promotes "mutual trust, cooperation and confidence, (to) prevent incidents, manage incidents should they occur and create a favourable environment for the peaceful resolution of disputes".

It does not cover discussions on whether the COC should be legally binding, which will be thrashed out during talks on the code itself.

A top diplomatic source told The Sunday Times that some countries have yet to approve of the language of the communique, particularly Vietnam's insistence that the phrase "land reclamation", a reference to China's man-made islands, be included. But he said the Philippines has negotiated a compromise on the wording.

Efforts to hammer out a COC have acquired urgency due to recent confrontations between China and Asean states with rival claims to the South China Sea, after such efforts had dragged on for years. In 2002, China and Asean settled for a declaration calling on claimants to exercise self-restraint in activities that would escalate disputes in the area.

China claims nearly all of the resource-rich waterway, including waters approaching the coasts of Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei. China has, in recent years, expanded its presence in the sea by building artificial islands capable of holding military bases.

The Philippines used to be a vocal critic of Beijing's expansionism but under President Rodrigo Duterte, it has sought to downplay the dispute in return for Chinese investments and aid.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 06, 2017, with the headline 'S-E Asian ministers endorse framework of S. China Sea code'. Print Edition | Subscribe