BORACAY, PHILIPPINES - Asean is set on completing a “framework” for a code of conduct (COC) on maritime disputes by June this year to “maintain an oasis of peace and stability” in the South China Sea amid a time of great global uncertainty, Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said on Tuesday (Feb 21).
“We can’t control the agenda of the superpowers. But we do need to make sure, to the best extent possible, that we maintain an oasis of peace and stability in this part of the world,” he said on the sidelines of a two-day Asean foreign ministers’ meeting here, the first to be hosted by the Philippines as Asean chair.
The meeting came amid increased tensions in the South China Sea, after a US aircraft carrier strike group began patrols in the waterway on Saturday (Feb 18).
On Tuesday, China expressed its unhappiness over the patrols, saying it opposes action by other countries that undermine its sovereignty under the pretext of freedom of navigation.
On the US’ role in the region, Dr Balakrishnan said Asean’s foreign ministers agreed to seek a meeting with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to get a clearer sense of President Donald Trump’s foreign policy.
“We need to meet, we need to engage, and we need to listen to each other. These are early, early days,” he said.
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.
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.
But Philippine Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay told reporters after the Asean ministers' meeting on Tuesday that Asean wanted the COC framework to be completed by June, and Beijing had shown it was keen for it to be finished.
Dr Balakrishan told reporters that “some urgent homework needs to be done” on a framework for the COC.
“We have a deadline, in the first half of this year, to try to complete the framework for the COC In the South China Sea,” he added.
He said the framework builds on elements which Asean has already identified, specifically from the Declaration On The Conduct Of Parties In The South China Sea concluded in 2002.
In that declaration, claimants to this vital waterway agreed to “exercise self-restraint”. They also reaffirmed their commitment to international law, and agreed to adopt a COC.
“We really didn’t go ito the details. What’s more important, though, is a deadline has been a set. To be able to put that down into a piece of paper which we can all agree on and use that as a foundation for a legally binding COC, therein lies the challenge,” said Dr Balakrishnan.
He said this framework, along with progress made in 2016 - such as the proposed “hotlines” and the Code on Unplanned Encounters at Sea - are “confidence-building measures”.
“We hope that if we can see progress, a certain momentum, a certain confidence... then we will have some momentum going into the really big challenge, which is actually to settle the legally binding code of conduct”.
He said the work ahead is difficult but important.
“This is not just a simple matter of negotiating the form of words… The fact that it has taken so long and we’re still in this situation should give us a sense of reality of the big task ahead,” he said.