Growing tension between Washington and Beijing over the South China Sea is spurring efforts within Asean to conclude a "framework" on a code of conduct (COC) governing maritime disputes by the middle of the year, a senior Philippine official said yesterday.
"There's more determination now to proceed to try and finalise a code of conduct, perhaps coming up with a framework as soon as possible and proceeding on actual negotiations on a COC," Foreign Undersecretary Enrique Manalo said at a two-day retreat of Asean foreign ministers here.
Asean and China have been holding talks on a COC to ease tensions arising from competing claims over the South China Sea for more than a decade. But talks have been slow, with consensus among Asean states elusive and China insisting on terms such as that any code should not hinder its naval patrols.
Yesterday, on the sidelines of the first ministerial-level meeting the Philippines is hosting as Asean chairman, Mr Manalo said the group's senior officials did not discuss specific developments in the South China Sea.
But the need to ensure an environment where accidents at sea, or anything that tends to jeopardise peace and stability can be avoided is "why Asean is trying to pursue a COC", he added.
The United States has taken a more assertive stance towards Beijing's presence in the South China Sea, stoking concerns that this vital waterway may become a flashpoint. Last Saturday, a US aircraft carrier strike group began patrols in the area, just days after China wrapped up its own naval exercises in the waterway.
Last month, State Secretary Rex Tillerson said the US would not allow China access to islands it has built in the South China Sea and on which it has installed weapons systems and built airstrips.
Yesterday, Mr Manalo said future Sino-US conflicts "could be subsumed under areas" to be covered by the COC. "The situation that existed last year is still there this year. It's important all Asean countries recognise the importance of trying to come up with a COC as soon as we can, and we think one step would be coming up with a framework for a COC."
Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay last month said the Philippines, as Asean chairman, will intensify efforts to complete a framework for the COC during the first half of the year. He said China is fully on board.
Beijing claims almost all of the resource-rich South China Sea, through which about US$5 trillion (S$7 trillion) worth of trade passes each year. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam claim parts of the waters.