By WASAMON AUDJARINT
THE FOREIGN ministers of Asean and China yesterday announced significant progress in negotiations towards establishing a Code of Conduct (COC) on behaviour in the contentious South China Sea.
At their annual meeting, they narrowed down their ideas to a single draft text, which will be a living document and the basis of future negotiations, Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, who co-chaired the meeting with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi, said yesterday.
A general view of the meeting between Russian delegates and ASEAN foreign ministers during the 51st ASEAN Foreign Minister's Meeting (AMM) in Singapore, 02 August 2018. // EPA-EFE PHOTO
“We also agreed on the key modalities for future rounds of negotiation,” he said at the opening session of the meeting but did not give detail of such modalities. Balakrishnan clarified after the Asean-China Ministerial Meeting that the progress made did not mean all territorial disputes were resolved.
“While negotiation is yet to be over, [the single text] made to generate the COC ensure that peace and stability are built up,” the minister said. “Thus we can make collective progress while taking time to resolve territorial disputes.”
While details of the single text were not revealed due to the sensitivity of the matter, Balakrishnan hinted that it would not set deadlines over further negotiations. “It’s impossible to set deadlines. A lot [of decisions] would depend on the mutual confidence of all parties,” he said.
“I would say that right now, everyone is glad and hopes that we are not in a position to put a specific deadline,” he said, adding, “So nobody would feel locked or overridden.”
Approved by ministers yesterday, the Single Draft COC Negotiating Text was originally conceived during the 15th Asean-China Senior Officials’ Meeting on the Implementation of the DOC in Changsha, China, in June.
With Singapore’s role as Asean-China coordinator ending, the progress made would help the Philippines, which takes over the reins this month, to carry on negotiations, Balakrishnan said.
Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan (L) and Thai Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai (R) attend a signing ceremony of the Instrument of Accession to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia by the Islamic Republic of Iran on the sidelines of the 51st ASEAN Foreign Ministers' Meeting (AMM) in Singapore, 02 August 2018. // EPA-EFE PHOTO
Many Asean members have been at loggerheads with giant neighbour China for a long time due to territorial disputes on the South China Sea. Among Asean claimants, the Philippines and Vietnam are at the forefront of the conflict, as they have faced tensions, stand-offs and clashes with China.
Asean and China signed the Declaration of the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) in 2002 but the non-binding document failed to prevent conflicts in the contentious sea. Both sides agreed years ago to have a legally binding instrument as a COC to regulate behaviour in the sea.
Having a single text for future negotiation is regarded as a significant step, said a diplomat, as stakeholders, in the past, always put their own versions on the table, making the talks very complicated.
While differences remained on both sides, it would be easier as all the elements will be in a single text, Thai Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai said, adding, “this is a good sign that Asean and China share the same will”.
China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi said the adoption of a single text was “significant progress”.
China and Asean have full capacity to achieve stability and peace in the South China Sea. Both sides will be able to reach consensus on a set of regional rules, he said.
“We believe that without any intervention from outside, the COC will speed up,” he said. “China and Asean can build a house together. In the past, there were 11 designs from 11 countries. Now, we have a single design of this house, and we have also put in place the pillars of this house,” Wang Yi told a press conference.
Asean foreign ministers, in their joint communique issued after the 51st ministerial meeting yesterday, said they noted that Asean member states and China had agreed on a Single Draft COC Negotiation Text during a meeting of senior officials in June. “In this regard, we emphasise the need to maintain an environment conducive to the COC negotiations,” said the joint statement.
However, a major concern currently is the militarisation of the sea, as China has continued its land reclamation and installation of facilities for military purpose.
An earlier version of the joint communique draft, seen by The Nation, suggested that Vietnam would propose to add “militarisation” as one of the sources of concerns to be taken note of by Asean and China.
The term, however, was omitted in the paper’s final version. “We took note of some concerns on land reclamation and activities in the area, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security, and stability in the region,” it says.
However, it does emphasise the importance of non-militarisation and self-restraint in the conduct of all activities by claimants and all other states that could “further complicate the situation and escalate tensions in the South China Sea”.
“We stressed the importance of undertaking confidence building and preventive measures to enhance, among others, trust and confidence amongst parties,” it says, adding that peaceful resolution by international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, is to be pursued.