Calls for maritime security amid South China Sea rows

Territorial disputes dominate Asean meetings as US urges cooperation

Calls to boost maritime security and cooperation were made even as the South China Sea issue dominated meetings between Asean foreign ministers and their counterparts from dialogue countries China and the United States yesterday.

Territorial disputes in the South China Sea, which is claimed almost entirely by China but also in part by four Asean nations, have heightened tensions in recent months.

US Secretary of State John Kerry told his Asean counterparts that the US and Asean had a common responsibility to ensure the maritime security of critical global sea lanes and ports.

"We need to work together to manage tensions in the South China Sea and to manage them peacefully, and also to manage them on the basis of international law," he said.

Asean ministers said there is already a mechanism in place to manage tensions - the 2002 Declaration of Conduct (DOC) signed by all Asean states and China.

Singapore's Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam told reporters: "I think the key is still making sure the DOC is complied with to the letter and to the spirit, and making sure that a Code of Conduct… is agreed to first and then implemented."

Article 5 of the DOC sets out principles on which the parties should manage the disputes - act with restraint, including not constructing on uninhabited islands and reefs; and taking steps that will reduce tension.

However, in May, China placed a state-owned oil rig in waters claimed by Vietnam, sparking skirmishes at sea and anti-Chinese riots in Vietnam.

The Philippines has also protested against China's construction activities on reefs in waters claimed by Manila, and has also recently arrested Chinese fishermen.  

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi yesterday said the DOC remained the chosen mechanism to ease tensions and urged all parties to adhere to its principles.

But he dismissed a three-stage resolution proposed by the Philippines to end tensions in the South China Sea.

Speaking to reporters, he decried the use of "megaphone diplomacy" and warned against "playing up so-called tension".

He also said the "position of China to safeguard its maritime rights and sovereignty is firm and unshakeable".

If there are "groundless provocative activities, the Chinese side is bound to make clear and firm reactions", he added.

Separately, China defended its plan announced last week to build lighthouses on five islands in the Paracel group which is also claimed by Vietnam.

According to the official Xinhua news agency, Mr Wang also called for strengthening maritime cooperation with Asean nations.

He said China suggested designating 2015 as China-Asean maritime cooperation year and also strengthening exchanges and cooperation in marine economy and other areas.

nirmal@sph.com.sg