Cautious response to China's treaty call

Asean signals preference for a more inclusive pact

ASEAN countries have reacted cautiously to China's call to intensify security cooperation between Beijing and Asean, showing that concerns linger over the intentions of Asia's largest economy despite their rapidly growing trade links with it.

In statements issued yesterday, after the Asean- China Summit a day earlier, the bloc used cautious language in response to Beijing's call for an exclusive treaty between the two sides and meeting between their defence ministers, signalling Asean's preference for more open and inclusive deals.

"We noted with appreciation China's proposed treaty on good-neighbourliness and friendly cooperation," said the summit chairman's statement.

But, it added: "We acknowledged Indonesia's idea in having a treaty of friendship and cooperation that includes a wider Indo-Pacific region, beyond Asean and China."

China's proposal came as several Asean members are concerned about the rising power's assertiveness in the South China Sea, where territorial claims overlap, although both sides recently started talks on a code of conduct to manage tensions.

The treaty pitch was made by Premier Li Keqiang at the summit, on his first trip to the region since taking office, and comes amid a raft of overtures China has made to Asean countries in recent days, including enhancing a free trade deal and starting a bank to invest in infrastructure projects.

Asean Secretary-General Le Luong Minh told The Straits Times in an interview that the Chinese proposal for a new treaty was not something that goes counter to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, a peace pact signed by Asean's five founding members in 1976. China, alongside India, was the first non-member to sign it in 2003.

But that treaty, Mr Minh said, "is the cornerstone governing relations between member states and their partners". And the new proposal, while appreciated, "has to be studied carefully first".

Neither should maritime disputes alone define Asean's growing partnership with China, he added.

Asean ministers were also cool to China's proposal for an informal Asean-China defence ministers' meeting in China proposed by Beijing, with officials in their statement leaving this to "a convenient time in the future".

Asean defence personnel already meet regularly with their counterparts from countries like China, Japan and the United States and carry out joint exercises under the Asean Defence Ministers' Meeting-Plus banner. But the bloc has been reluctant to agree to regular meetings with a single partner.

Suggestions that Beijing might gain the upper hand this week in the absence of US President Barack Obama amid a government shutdown were also proven wrong when a number of leaders at the 18-nation East Asia Summit highlighted the issue of freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, and the need to reach a code of conduct early.

In reply, the Chinese Premier said such freedom to navigate has never been - and will never be - an issue, and that "countries that are not parties to the disputes should not get involved".

For his part, Philippine President Benigno Aquino maintained that even as talks on a code of conduct began, his country would pursue arbitration to resolve maritime disputes.

Earlier this year, the Philippines filed a claim over Scarborough Shoal under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, but China has declined to take part in the process.

Asked about developments in the South China Sea at a press conference after the meetings, Brunei Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah stressed the positive steps taken, including regular meetings on the code next year, and search and rescue missions. "It is hoped that such measures will help to promote greater understanding and avoid incidents," he added.

zakirh@sph.com.sg