Asean, China adopt S.China Sea ‘code of conduct’ framework

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi is interviewed by reporters as he attends the 50th Asean Foreign Ministers’ Meeting and its dialogue partners in Manila on Sunday. (AP photo)

MANILA – Southeast Asian countries and China adopted on Sunday the framework of a code of conduct in the South China Sea, setting the stage for long-sought negotiations to start on ways to ease tensions in regional waters.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said the adoption of the framework created a solid foundation for negotiations that could start this year, if “the situation in the South China Sea is generally stable and on the premise that there is no major interference from outside parties.”

There had been “really tangible progress” so there was “a need to cherish momentum on the South China, he told a press conference after a meeting with his counterparts from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

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However, few officials and experts believe the negotiations will go smoothly and lead to new rules of behaviour in the disputed sea anytime soon.

The primary focus is whether the code will be legally binding. But China, which claims virtually the entire South China Sea, is unlikely to allow the negotiations to move in that direction.

A two-page document obtained by Kyodo News shows the framework contains a provision which states it is not an instrument to settle territorial disputes or maritime boundary issues.

It does, however, have general headings on prevention and management of incidents, although without any explanation of how that would be achieved.

The framework was agreed by senior diplomats from Asean and China in the southwestern Chinese city of Guiyang in May.

A code of conduct has long been discussed, with both sides agreeing in 2002 on a loose set of guidelines known as the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the region.

Jay Batongbacal, the director of the Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea at the University of the Philippines, said he believes the newly adopted document does not constitute major progress, noting it is merely a list of topics.

“On that kind of listing it would be surprising if they don’t come to an agreement. I mean it’s really very insubstantial anyway,” Mr Batongbacal said, expressing doubt that Asean and China will be able to come up with anything concrete in the next few years.

Robespierre Bolivar, spokesman of the Philippines’ Department of Foreign Affairs, said no consensus has been reached on whether to make the code of conduct legally binding, hinting that there are parties which do not favour doing so.

“The discussions are ongoing, so we are trying to find the consensus because that is the principle of Asean, having a consensus,” Mr Bolivar said.

Mr Bolivar said the Philippines wants to make the agreement legally binding, but added what is essential is to make sure the code of conduct is effective.

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