China to start code of conduct talks with Asean soon

Beijing, Jakarta agree on measures to manage South China Sea disputes

CHINA'S new Foreign Minister Wang Yi has agreed to start talks with Asean on the legally binding code of conduct (COC) soon and setting up of an Eminent Persons Group to complement government-to-government talks.

Mr Wang, on his maiden trip to the region as China's top diplomat, agreed on these points with his Indonesian counterpart, Dr Marty Natalegawa, yesterday.

Asean at its summit last month had urged China to start talks on the COC to manage peacefully disputes in the resource-rich South China Sea where the regional power has overlapping territorial claims with four Asean states and Taiwan.

Apart from the Eminent Persons Group and discussions on the COC by an Asean-China working group at the director-general level soon, the two men also agreed to set up a direct line of communications between their offices for quick response to any incidents in the disputed waters.

Dr Marty described yesterday's measures as "evolutionary", done "step by step in developing a comfort level and habit of cooperation" towards hammering out a solution to the disputed territories.

Tensions in the South China Sea have been exacerbated by incidents such as one in late March in which Vietnam accused a Chinese patrol ship of firing on one of its fishing boats near the disputed Paracel Islands.

These actions have fuelled mistrust and uncertainty in one of the world's busiest waterways.

Analysts say the measures announced yesterday signalled China's strategic courtship of Indonesia, which Beijing sees as an effective peace-broker in the region as it is not one of the claimants. Indeed, Mr Wang said China "looks forward to Asean's most important member Indonesia playing a more crucial role in promoting ties between China and Asean".

They also represent the new Foreign Minister's efforts to better relations with Asean, with which trade is becoming vital as China's own economy slows.

"It is important for China to preserve this 'friendly elephant' image... for political and economic gains," said Mr Yeremia Lalisang, managing director at University of Indonesia's Asean Study Centre, referring to former Chinese premier Wen Jiabao's description of his country.

Indonesia was the second country Mr Wang visited after Thailand. He is in Singapore today, and will end his six-day working trip in Brunei.

Asean-China trade hit a record high of US$400.9 billion (S$490 billion) last year, increasing by 10.2 per cent over 2011.

However, many are unsettled by what they see as China's rising assertiveness in the region, partly blamed on great power rivalry after the United States declared its "pivot to Asia" in late 2011.

Yesterday, Mr Wang struck a measured tone. He reiterated his country's sovereignty claims to territories in the region and its unchanging stance of holding bilateral talks with individual rival claimants. However, he also expressed China's desire to support Asean's development, integration and dominant role in the region.

"China will continue to invest more effort in Asean," he said.

International relations analyst Hikmahanto Juwana said the proposals are a step forward. "They offer some clarity and could help cool tensions. All parties should capture this momentum."

zubaidah@sph.com.sg