Beijing proposes China-Asean pledge on territorial disputes

A ship (top) of the Chinese Coast Guard is seen near a ship of the Vietnam Marine Guard in the South China Sea, off shore of Vietnam in this May 14, 2014 file photo. PHOTO: REUTERS

Pending a binding agreement on how China and Asean should manage territorial disputes in the South China Sea, Beijing has proposed a joint statement pledging to adhere to the principles of an earlier pact, including to refrain from escalating tensions in the area.

The statement will reflect elements in a 2002 Declaration of Conduct (DOC), a pact signed by China and Asean members stating that all parties should resolve their disputes peacefully and avoid doing anything that would complicate or escalate these disputes.

Chinese Vice-Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin yesterday said it was "necessary" for members of the 10-nation grouping to reaffirm their commitment to the DOC, which has not been fully implemented.

This comes at a time when Asean and China are negotiating a legally binding Code of Conduct (COC) to prevent conflicts in the sea, where China has overlapping claims with Asean members Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia.

Mr Liu said: "Pending the final conclusion of COC, we believe that issuing a joint statement to reaffirm our commitment to the DOC is a positive move to ensure stability and peace in the South China Sea."

However, former Asean secretary-general Ong Keng Yong questioned the need for the statement. "Why is there a need for another statement when there already is the DOC that Asean members have agreed upon, reiterated and reaffirmed over the past 14 years?"

Mr Ong, executive deputy chairman of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, told The Straits Times: "Asean members will have to re-examine the wording, tone and thrust of the joint statement to determine if it is the same as that in the DOC."

Mr Liu was speaking at a press conference to wrap up a two-day meeting in Singapore of Chinese and Asean diplomats. Chaired by the Singapore Ministry of Foreign Affairs Permanent Secretary Chee Wee Kiong and Mr Liu, it discussed how to implement DOC guidelines and improve Asean-China cooperation.

Singapore is the current coordinator for the Asean-China dialogue partnership, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. Mr Chee announced a series of activities to mark the anniversary, including a commemorative summit.

But tensions are expected to rise when the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague gives its ruling by early June on a petition brought by the Philippines against China's claims in the South China Sea.

Mr Liu said China does not recognise the tribunal and will not accept its ruling, adding that the DOC continues to be the "common basis" to address territorial issues.

In a move said by senior Singapore diplomats to divide Asean on the ruling, China reached a consensus with three Asean states on the South China Sea, including that the disputes are not an issue between China and Asean as a whole. While Asean does not take sides in the claims, it takes the stance that the grouping and China should manage these disputes together to prevent conflicts through the COC.

Mr Ong responded to Mr Liu's remarks on Tuesday that China was shocked by his comments - that the consensus amounted to China meddling in Asean's internal affairs - at a forum in Jakarta on Monday. "I was in a forum, responding to a question from the floor... it was said in my private capacity and not as an MFA official," he said.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 29, 2016, with the headline Beijing proposes China-Asean pledge on territorial disputes. Subscribe