Asean calls for progress on Code of Conduct

Ministers want swift action on code to manage disputes in S. China Sea

EXPRESSING serious concern over increased tension in the South China Sea, Asean foreign ministers have called for quick progress on a long-delayed Code of Conduct (COC) to manage disputes in the waters where China has rival claims with four Asean states.

The ministers' joint communique issued yesterday did not name China in its reference to the South China Sea but urged "all parties concerned" to exercise self-restraint and avoid actions which would complicate the situation and undermine peace, stability and security in the area.

Disputes should be settled through dialogue, consultations and negotiations under recognised international law, without resorting to the threat or use of force, it said.

Asean states' concern over Chinese behaviour is at an "all-time high", Agence France-Presse quoted a senior US official as saying here yesterday. But the official said there would not be a "showdown" between the United States and China. "We don't want to confront China. But we have a series of interests and principles that drive our approach in the region where they diverge with China."

China, for its part, says the tension has been exaggerated. It wants a "dual-track" approach to resolve competing claims - direct talks with rival claimants and collective talks with Asean to "work together to uphold peace and stability in the South China Sea".

The Asean statement also "noted" a three-point Philippine plan for a freeze on "destabilising" actions - already rejected by Beijing. The statement did not mention a US proposal for a moratorium on activity in the disputed zone, brought to the Asean Regional Forum (ARF) by US Secretary of State John Kerry.

Tension in the South China Sea in recent months, in particular between China and Asean states Vietnam and the Philippines, overshadowed the meetings and lent the long-delayed COC a sharper focus at the Asean Ministerial Meeting and subsequent ARF held here over the weekend.

"We need to move on the COC faster," said Singapore Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam at an interview. China would be asked to define its idea of an "early harvest" - or immediately practicable measures - and officials would work on a structure and details of the COC, he said.

The Asean foreign ministers also called on Indonesia to ratify the Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution and endorsed proposals for enhancing trade and business links between Asean and the US and China.

These include setting up a new Asian Infrastructure Bank and upgrading an existing Asean-China free trade agreement (FTA).

The ARF, an annual security meeting of Asean and several dialogue partners including the US, China, India and Australia, saw strong words on the conflict between Israel and Hamas and on the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 over Ukraine.