China calls for fast-track talks on Code of Conduct

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (center) speaks to reporters after he met with US State Secretary John Kerry (not pictured) on the sideline of the Asean annual ministerial meeting and the Regional Security Forum in Vientiane on July 25. PHOTO: AFP

China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi has proposed that Asean and China fast track negotiations for the Code of Conduct in the contested South China Sea.

Speaking to reporters yesterday after a 90-minute meeting with Asean foreign ministers as part of an annual series of talks organised by the bloc, he said his country had proposed that "China and Asean shall endeavour - under condition of staying free from disturbances - to complete consultation of the framework of the Code of Conduct by the middle of next year".

A Code of Conduct has proven elusive 14 years after Asean and China adopted a less binding Declaration of Conduct in the resource-rich waterway, through which U$5.3 trillion (S$7.2 trillion) worth of trade passes every year.

The four Asean states of the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei, as well as China and Taiwan, have overlapping claims in the South China Sea.

But China, which claims almost all of the sea with its "nine-dash line", has reclaimed massive amounts of land on which it has installed military facilities. Other claimant states have also been trying to boost their maritime capabilities to protect their territory.

On July 12, the Arbitral Tribunal at The Hague ruled overwhelmingly against China in a case brought by the Philippines regarding their competing claims.

China has lobbied actively against Asean taking a common stance on the issue, and it thanked Cambodia publicly for supporting its position.

But Mr Wang said yesterday that "the page has turned". "We believe that the temperature surrounding the arbitration case should now be lowered. Regarding the South China Sea issue, it's time for all to come back to the right track."

To this end, China and Asean yesterday adopted a joint statement on the full and effective implementation of the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea.

In the statement, both sides committed themselves to "the freedom of navigation in and overflight above the South China Sea as provided for by the universally recognised principles of international law, including the 1982 (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea)".

The parties also undertook to resolve their territorial disputes by peaceful means, and "exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability including, among others, refraining from action of inhabiting on the presently uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals, cays and other features and to handle their differences in a constructive manner".

Tan Hui Yee

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 26, 2016, with the headline China calls for fast-track talks on Code of Conduct. Subscribe