In a diplomatic coup for Beijing, Southeast Asian ministers omitted any reference to the need for a legally binding code of conduct in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), and were tepid on China’s reclamation activities in the contested waters.
The United States and allies Australia and Japan, in contrast, delivered a stronger rebuke to China over its island-building, following a gathering of foreign ministers and a regional security forum organized by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) in Manila.
The joint communiqué of the 50th Asean Foreign Ministers’ Meeting issued Sunday night said the 10-nation bloc was ready to negotiate the code of conduct (COC) on the West Philippine Sea with China, after adopting the framework or outline of the proposed code.
The code will be “effective,” rather than legally binding.
China insists that the much-delayed code of conduct between it and Asean members over the disputed sea must not be legally binding, a demand to which Southeast Asian countries have so far acquiesced.
“We warmly welcomed the improving cooperation between Asean and China and are encouraged by the conclusion and adoption of the framework of a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, which will facilitate the work for the conclusion of an effective COC on a mutually agreed timeline,” Asean ministers said.
The communiqué only noted concerns raised by some foreign ministers on land reclamations and other activities in the South China Sea, which according to them had “eroded trust and confidence.”
China claims nearly all of the sea, through which $5 trillion in annual shipping trade passes and which is believed to sit atop vast oil and gas deposits.
Its sweeping claims overlap with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei – all Asean members – as well as Taiwan.
But in recent years Beijing has managed to weaken regional resistance by courting some Asean members.
On Sunday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned any interference from “outside parties” could jeopardize negotiations over the code of conduct.
Yi told reporters Asean leaders and China would formally announce the start of negotiations “if there is no more disruption from non-regional parties and when the situation in the South China Sea is generally stable.”
Asean ministers also emphasized the importance of full and effective implementation of the Declaration on the Code of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), which was signed by all members of Asean and China in November 2002.
The DOC is a document containing a list of principles of self-restraint and non-militarization in the disputed waters, to prevent escalation of tensions and ensure stability in the area.
“We emphasized the importance of non-militarization and self-restraint in the conduct of all activities by claimants and all other states, including those mentioned in the DOC that could further complicate the situation and escalate tensions in the South China Sea,” the Asean ministers stated in their 46-page communiqué.
Asean ministers also emphasized the need to pursue the peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea or Unclos.
China, PH told: Respect arbitral ruling
The United States, Australia and Japan on Monday denounced Beijing’s island-building and militarization of the South China Sea, in contrast to the increasingly tepid response from Asean over the festering issue.
In a joint statement after their foreign ministers met on the sidelines of the Asean meetings in Manila, the US, Japan and Australia delivered a noticeably sterner rebuke to Beijing.
Criticizing ongoing “land reclamation, construction of outposts, militarization of disputed features” in the disputed sea, the trio said any code of conduct must be “legally binding, meaningful and effective,” a demand noticeably absent from the Asean statement.
The three nations also called on China and the Philippines to respect last year’s international arbitration ruling, which dismissed much of Beijing’s claim on the sea.
The Philippines had been one of the most vocal critics of China and filed a case before a UN-backed tribunal in
2013, which it won last year.
But after the election of President Rodrigo Duterte last year, Manila has played down the verdict in favor of pursuing warmer ties with Beijing, a move that led to offers of billions of dollars in investments or aid from China.
The US, Australia and Japan oppose Beijing building giant artificial islands that could be used as military bases, fearing it will eventually establish de facto control over the waters.
China insists the three countries should stay out of what it says are purely bilateral disputes with its neighbors.