Asean, China pledge to exercise restraint in South China Sea, gloss over Myanmar crisis

A Chinese Coast Guard patrol ship (left) is seen near an unidentified vessel at Whitsun Reef, in the South China Sea, in a photo released by the Philippine Coast Guard on April 15, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING - Asean and China on Tuesday (June 8) pledged to exercise self-restraint to avoid actions that would "complicate or escalate" disputes in the South China Sea and committed to resuming negotiations on a code of conduct (COC), while glossing over the Myanmar crisis.

In a statement released a day after a special meeting of Asean and China's foreign ministers, the countries also pledged to strengthen public health cooperation, particular in the area of vaccines.

Diplomatic sources told The Straits Times (ST) that the delay in the statement stemmed from disagreements over the language surrounding the South China Sea, which, along with the Myanmar crisis, dominated most of the discussions on Monday afternoon in the Chinese city of Chongqing.

ST understands that the Philippines had asked for stronger language on the South China Sea to be inserted into the statement, but had faced pushback.

This was largely due to "China and some... small Asean states", said a senior South-east Asian diplomat who asked not to be named, referring to Cambodia and Laos.

"Enhance and promote maritime security, uphold the freedom of navigation in and overflight above the South China Sea, exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability," said the 14-paragraph statement.

The language was similar to that of previous statements between Asean and its dialogue partners.

Asean and China also plan to speed up the resumption of negotiations over the COC and the talks will be conducted virtually. Previously, negotiators had said the topic was too important for discussions to be conducted online, and talks came to a standstill after the coronavirus pandemic stopped air travel.

China has sweeping claims of sovereignty over the South China Sea, but faces competing claims by Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan.

In the statement, there was no mention of the crisis in Myanmar, with simply a reference to "maintaining regional peace and stability".

Myanmar state media said military-appointed Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin told the meeting that the military had made progress on its own five-step road map for the country unveiled after its Feb 1 coup.

Several Asean ministers, however, had expressed disappointment at the lack of progress in a "five-point consensus" towards a peace process as agreed by Asean leaders at a special summit in April.

Regional analyst and former Iseas - Yusof Ishak Institute senior fellow Lye Liang Fook said: "While the Myanmar issue looms large, this is a special meeting to mark 30 years of relations between Asean and China, and it's to project that the overall relationship is positive."

He added: "It does not mean that Asean's focus on Myanmar is any less diluted... No other international organisation is in any position to reach out to the military government because (the Tatmadaw) does not see Asean as a threat."

Asean and China are also looking at increasing vaccine cooperation, while working together in other areas like health development.

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"Asean greatly appreciates China's provision of vaccines, medical supplies and technical assistance to Asean and its member states," the statement said, adding that close collaboration has helped in economic recovery from the pandemic.

They also agreed to continue economic cooperation in areas like the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership as well as work together to intertwine the Asean Regional Masterplan with China's Belt and Road Initiative.

Meanwhile, a statement on the visit of Asean chairman Lim Jock Hoi and Brunei's Second Minister for Foreign Affairs Erywan Pehin Yusof to Myanmar was removed from the Asean secretariat's website on Tuesday morning.

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