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Asean Ministers Set To Push for South China Sea Agreements

China claims the highlighted portion of the South China Sea. Other governments also claim all or part of the South China Sea.
China claims the highlighted portion of the South China Sea. Other governments also claim all or part of the South China Sea.

Asean foreign ministers will meet in Malaysia later this week, where they are expected to discuss their stance on the South China Sea issue and take steps toward more agreements to ensure peace in the region.

According to documents obtained by VOA Khmer ahead of the meeting, the ministers expect to take a strong stance on peace and stability, as well as “the freedom of navigation, unimpeded lawful maritime commerce, trade and over flight.”

The ministers are working toward fuller implementation of a “Declaration of Conduct,” which will allow consultation toward “the early conclusion of the Code of Conduct,” a set of rules that would put in place mechanisms to avoid conflict in the contentious sea, according to a draft statement, which is expected to be read by the chairman at the conclusion of the Aug. 6 meeting.

The ministers will express concern over China’s land reclamation and construction of land features in the South China Sea and will try to dissuade unilateral action or any use of force that could destabilize the region.

Asean and China are working toward a Declaration of Conduct, according to drafts obtained by VOA Khmer. That could set the stage for a more meaningful Code of Conduct. In a meeting in July and August, working groups from Asean and China agreed to resolve maritime issues over the sea “in the spirit of good neighborliness” and in accordance with international maritime law.

In that meeting, Asean states and China have worked on establishing points of contact for emergency communications between senior officials, which could help prevent conflicts form escalating. However, draft documents note a “widening gap” between the diplomatic track and growing tension of the ground.

Each side has agreed to exercise self-restraint to avoid escalating disputes and to avoid populating uninhabited islands and other features in contested areas. Both sides are also working to ensure that the South China Sea issue does not hurt overall Asean-China relations. Meanwhile, they are working toward negotiating the Code of Conduct to be finished as early as possible, while “enhancing mutual trust and confidence.”

For its part, China has suggested keeping strong relations with Asean, and cooperating from a 2002 Declaration of Conduct, which also calls for peace, stability, friendship and cooperation over the South China Sea.

“The implementation of the agreed project/interim measures/early harvest schemes, including joint development under the COC, should be based on consensus among parties concerned and on a voluntary basis and, if deemed necessary, the services of the experts and eminent person will be sought to provide specific inputs on the projects concern,” according to the Chinese version of a list of so-called “commonalities” related to the Code of Conduct.

According to a draft general framework for the Code of Conduct, also obtained by VOA Khmer, proposed by Thailand, the main aim of the COC is “promoting mutual trust and confidence, preventing and managing incidents should they occur, without prejudice to claims. It also helps create a conducive environment for peaceful settlement of disputes, in accordance with international law, including the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.”

“The COC is not meant to be an instrument to settle disputes,” the draft framework says. “Rather it shall serve as a rules-based framework containing a set of norms, rules and procedures that guide the conduct of the parties in the South China Sea.”

Shihoko Goto, senior associate for Asia at the Wilson Center in Washington, said that reaching a consensus of rules will be critical in upcoming talks, especially given the new attempts at construction made by China.

“There is clearly an understanding among all parties involved that the current situation of unclear rules, coupled with mounting tensions, must be resolved soon,” she said. “Yet the Tianjin meetings demonstrated just how difficult it will be to reach that common goal.”

“One positive step forward in the latest Tianjin meetings was to establish a ministerial hotline to deal with emergencies,” she said. “But the ongoing difficulties in establishing a COC may have actually widened the divide among those countries involved and aggravated tensions.”

The US, meanwhile, also wants to see a deal reached, she said. “Given that many Asean nations are interested in reaching a solution soon with an eye to building good relations with China, US interest will also be in being part of international efforts to reach a consensus and be part of the endeavors to adhere to global standards.”

“One question is how the Philippines going into arbitration against China in the Hague may conflict with those looking to further relations with China,” she said. “Both do not have to be mutually exclusive.”

And Cambodia, a member of Asean with strong ties to China, could have a role to play in upcoming talks, she said. “This will test the government at adeptness in diplomacy.”

Prime Minister Hun Sen said in a speech on Monday that Cambodia is still interested mediating the dispute. Cambodia was unfairly attacked after it hosted Asean-China talks in Phnom Penh in 2012, he said. Critics at the time said Cambodia had sided with China’s interests, breaking Asean’s unified voice and leading to a summit with no results.

“I only need that Asean and China continue to negotiate and implement the Declaration of Conduct for the South China Sea and step toward the Code of Conduct, while also encouraging the countries concerned to talk,” he said.

Achmad Rizal Purnama, first secretary of the Indonesian Embassy in Washington, said the Code of Conduct will help build confidence between China and Asean, but it remains to be seen how it will manage actual situations on the sea regarding ship navigation, potential military incidents and other matters. The code will take some time to create, however, he said. “To be realistic, it’s not going to be adopted this year.”