A WORKING group meeting involving China and the Asean states, to be held in Singapore today, represents the best opportunity in more than a decade to ensure that conflicting territorial claims in the South China Sea are dealt with peacefully.
Participants are scheduled to discuss the details of a formal code of conduct in the disputed region that will be binding on both Asean and China.
Since 2002, when China and Asean agreed to draw up an official code of conduct, there has been little progress. Instead, the parties to the conflict have spent most of their time blaming each other for raising tension in the disputed maritime zones.
In recent months, however, Asean-China ties have stabilised and the new Chinese leadership has shown a willingness to proceed with the negotiation of a formal code of conduct.
Therefore, there is real hope that talks this year could result in considerable progress.
Working groups and senior officials will each have two meetings, followed by an Asean-China ministerial meeting before the Asean Summit in Myanmar later this year. The hope is that these meetings will come up with five or six common areas of agreement.
At the Asean foreign ministers meeting in Bagan, Myanmar, in January this year, Asean identified several key common elements.
These include commitment to the purposes and principles of the United Nations Charter, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation and other Asean documents; respect for each other's independence and sovereignty; and upholding the spirit and principles of the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea Dispute.
Conflicting parties have also expressed commitment to full and effective implementation of freedom of navigation as well as joint projects and activities.
Asean has also agreed to resolve territorial and juridical disputes by peaceful means.
It is hoped that China will subscribe to these common Asean positions to serve as a solid foundation for further negotiation.
Meanwhile, China's declaration of an air defence identification zone (ADIZ) last November in the East China Sea and new fishing regulations off Hainan island have created additional anxieties that need to be addressed.
Some in Asean fear that China will soon announce a similar zone above the disputed South China Sea. Beijing officials have stated that it has no such plan.
But the Asean states will probably want to hear that message directly from the Chinese leaders.
The new fishing regulations affecting areas around Hainan island, which came into effect on Jan 1 this year, will also be discussed. They require foreign trawlers to notify the Chinese authorities before entering the claimed water territories. Offenders will be evicted, their catches seized and fined 500,000 yuan (S$103,000).
Vietnam and the Philippines have already complained about this and asked for clarification from the Chinese side.
Manila said that these rules have serious implications for freedom of navigation, maritime security and the Unclos.
It took Asean and China a decade to sign on with the guidelines to implement the various joint cooperation agreements signed in 2002. When they last met in Beijing, Asean and China concluded a series of action plans.
These included the establishment of a hotline, an information exchange and a data bank as well as cooperation in search and rescue missions.
Thailand, which has been tasked with the job of coordinating Asean-China relations, hopes additional areas of cooperation can be identified during today's working group meeting.
The Singapore meeting is also significant in that it comes ahead of the scheduled March 30 deadline set by the UN arbitration tribunal at The Hague for Manila to submit evidence regarding the strength of its claims in the South China Sea. China may be hoping that Asean will pressure Manila into withdrawing the case before that date as a sign of goodwill.
The writer is assistant group editor of Nation Media Group in Thailand, which publishes the English-language daily The Nation.