SINGAPORE - Asean's foreign ministers have emphasised the importance of non-militarisation and self-restraint in all activities in the South China Sea, especially those that could complicate the situation and escalate tensions.
Their position was outlined in a statement by Singapore's Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan at the end of an Asean Foreign Ministers' Retreat which he chaired on Tuesday (Feb 6).
The statement comes as all 10 Asean members and China are set to begin negotiations next month on a binding code of conduct to manage tensions in the disputed waters.
The dates for the talks have yet to be officially announced, but The Straits Times understands that negotiations are scheduled to take place on March 1 and 2 in Vietnam.
Tuesday's retreat is the first gathering of Asean foreign ministers under Singapore's chairmanship of the grouping this year, and saw ministers discuss Asean's priorities for 2018 as well as regional and global developments.
"We discussed the matters relating to the South China Sea and took note of the concerns expressed by some ministers on the land reclamations and activities in the area, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region," Dr Balakrishnan said in the statement.
"We reaffirmed the need to enhance mutual trust and confidence, exercise self-restraint... and avoid actions that may further complicate the situation," he added.
Four Asean members - Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam - and China have overlapping claims in the South China Sea, which has seen military installations built in recent years.
At the same time, Asean's economic links with China have expanded significantly in recent years, and both sides have stressed that the dispute should not divide the grouping or detract from its broader relationship with China.
In the statement, Dr Balakrishnan said the ministers also reiterated the importance of Asean centrality and unity, and their shared commitment to regional stability and the peaceful resolution of disputes - including full respect for legal and diplomatic processes without resorting to the threat of use of force, in line with international law.
The Asean foreign ministers also stressed the importance of maintaining safety and freedom of navigation in, as well as overflight above, the South China Sea and "warmly welcomed"improving cooperation between Asean and China.
Dr Balakrishnan told reporters after the retreat that negotiations on a code of conduct will be very complicated.
"There is no shortage of sensitive issues that will take a lot of innovation and imagination on the part of diplomats... and exercise of political will," he said.
But he was optimistic that some progress could be made.
"The situation in the South China Sea is calmer now," he added. "I believe there is a shared good faith and goodwill on both sides, to try to... make a significant advance this year."
However, he declined to go into details on a timeline, saying: "What's far more important is the building up of trust between all the parties so we can actually engage in what will be very difficult negotiations.
"Building up trust, getting the sequence right and doing it step by step is more important than doing it in a hasty way because there is some artificial deadline."