FOREIGN ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and China have adopted the framework of a code of conduct (COC) to ease tensions in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), a move that Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi viewed as “progress.”
However, Wang said China will only agree to start negotiations on the sea code “if there is no more disruption from non-regional parties and when the situation in the South China Sea is generally stable.”
Foreign Affairs Spokesman Robespierre Bolivar said the ministers agreed to convene in August to discuss modalities of the negotiations on the actual code of conduct.
“Leaders of Asean are expected to announce the formal start of negotiations for the Code of Conduct at their summit in November,” he added.
Wang said Chinese officials recognized the continuous efforts e xerted by Asean and China that led to positive developments.
“The apparent situation in the South China Sea is showing positive momentum and we also fully recognize the trend toward relaxation in the South China Sea situation,” he said. “The foreign ministers recognized the valuable progress that we have made in the past year thanks to the concerted efforts.”
Meanwhile, Bolivar said Asean and China will continue to work on related maritime cooperation efforts including management and prevention of conflict among parties though confidence building measures to prevent miscalculations on the ground
The DFA spokesman however did not say if China gave any commitment to stop its fortification of features in disputed waters.
Bolivar said the framework on the COC will not be released to the public because of its sensitivity.
The framework will be the basis for negotiations of the actual code and discussions would be structured on the elements enumerated in the code.
Southeast Asian nations feuded Sunday over how to respond to Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea, with Vietnam insisting on a tough stance but Cambodia lobbying hard for Beijing, diplomats said.
The debates among foreign ministers of the 10-member Asean were the latest in years of struggles to deal with competing claims to the strategically vital sea.
The ministers failed to release a customary joint statement after meeting on Saturday because of their differences on the sea issue, and follow-up negotiations on Sunday did not end the stand-off, two diplomats involved in the talks told AFP.
“There’s still no consensus,” one of the diplomats said, adding the disagreements over the wordings on the sea issue were holding up the release of the communique.
“Vietnam is adamant, and China is effectively using Cambodia to champion its interests. But the Philippines is trying very hard to broker compromise language.”
Vietnam had insisted that tough language be inserted into the statement expressing concern over “land reclamation,” a reference to an explosion in recent years of Chinese artificial island building in contested parts of the waters.
Cambodia, one of China’s strongest allies within Asean, has firmly resisted, according to the diplomats involved in the talks in Manila, as well as an excerpt of proposed Cambodian resolution obtained by AFP on Sunday.
China claims nearly all of the sea, through which $5 trillion in annual shipping trade passes, and its artificial islands have raised concerns it could eventually build military bases there and establish de facto control over the waters.
Its sweeping claims overlap with those of Asean members Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.
Tensions over the sea have long vexed Asean, which operates on a consensus basis but has had to balance the interests of rival claimants and those more aligned to China.
Critics of China have accused it of trying to divide Asean with strong-armed tactics and checkbook diplomacy, enticing smaller countries in the bloc such as Cambodia and Laos to support it.
The Philippines, under previous president Benigno Aquino, had been one of the most vocal critics of China and filed a case before a UN-backed tribunal.
The tribunal last year ruled China’s sweeping claims to the sea had no legal basis.
But China, despite being a signatory to the UN’s Convention on the Law of the Sea, ignored the ruling.
The Philippines, under new President Rodrigo Duterte, decided to play down the verdict in favor of pursuing warmer ties with Beijing. This in turn led to offers of billions of dollars in investments or aid from China.
“It’s clear that China’s pressure on individual Asean governments has paid off with few prepared even to reiterate statements that they have made many times before,” Bill Hayton, a South China Sea expert and associate fellow with the Asia Program at Chatham House in London, said.
“Beijing’s task has been made easier because the Philippines holds the (Asean) chair this year.”
Bolivar told reporters the Asean joint statement would be released by the time meetings with foreign ministers from other Asia-Pacific nations wrapped up in Manila on Tuesday.
But one diplomat involved in the talks told AFP that Vietnam and Cambodia were holding firm on Sunday.
“The atmosphere is still very tense due to the strong national interests of Vietnam and Cambodia,” the diplomat said.