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Asean to focus on COC while playing down South China Sea dispute

Nov 01. 2019
The 35th Asean Summit and Related Summits 31 Oct.-4 Nov. 2019 Bangkok, Thailand
The 35th Asean Summit and Related Summits 31 Oct.-4 Nov. 2019 Bangkok, Thailand
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By The Nation

The contentious South China Sea dispute would not be a hot discussion during the Asean Summit in Thailand this weekend as members are likely to welcome the early completion of the first reading of the code of conduct (COC) despite looming concerns.

The chair’s draft statement for the Asean+3 (Asean, China, Japan and South Korea) makes no mention of the contentious sea conflict, but the other two drafts for the Asean Summit and the East Asia Summit seen by The Nation expressed satisfaction at the early completion of the first reading of the COC text.

Many members of the regional group have been at loggerheads with China over territorial disputes in the South China Sea for decades. The group and Beijing signed a non-binding Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) in 2002 but the disputes and tensions have continued as claimants have reclaimed land and built some facilities that can be used for military purposes in the areas.

While calling for full implementation of the DOC, the group has sat with China to have the COC as a legally binding instrument to control the behaviour of riparian states. The first reading of the negotiated text was finished in July, five months ahead of schedule.

A draft statement by the Asean Summit chair says: “We emphasised the need to maintain an environment conducive to the COC negotiations, and thus welcomed practical measures that could reduce tensions and the risk of accidents, misunderstandings and miscalculation.”

Two paragraphs of the chair’s draft statement for the East Asia Summit, which would also bring together leaders from the US, China, Russia, India and Australia, almost repeats the Asean statement.

Both the drafts refer to concerns about land reclamation activities in the area, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region. The two statements likely copied the same words to reaffirm the need to enhance mutual trust and confidence, exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities and avoid actions that may further complicate the situation and pursue peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Asean and China planned to have three rounds, which they call reading, of negotiations on the text of the COC whose contents are yet to be made public.

Territorial claimants such as Vietnam and the Philippines have occasionally expressed their hope to see a collective stance from the regional grouping against coercions committed by China in the contentious sea. Vietnam faced a stand-off with a Chinese survey ship in July and wanted Asean to address the issue during its gathering in Bangkok.

In early October, Vietnamese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Le Thi Thu Hang cited information from competent Vietnamese agencies as saying that a Chinese vessel group has continued to expand its operations in Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone and continental shelf, seriously violating Vietnam’s sovereign right and jurisdiction as defined in the 1982 UNCLOS of which both Vietnam and China are members.

Vietnam resolutely opposes the action and has made contact with the Chinese side, Hang said. Hanoi called for constructive talks to solve the problem through which Asean should have a collective voice, especially during the forthcoming summits and COC talks.

Former Philippine foreign secretary Albert del Rosario reportedly said on Monday that the COC must include the landmark 2016 Hague ruling -- which ruled in favour of Manila -- to make sure the long-delayed sea code abides by the rule of law.

Del Rosario, who was the Philippines’ foreign secretary when it decided to file its historic case against China three years ago, urged Asean to exercise “utmost vigilance” in ensuring the COC was not used by China to undermine the arbitral ruling, which upheld provisions of the UNCLOS and invalidated China’s nine-dash line, according to Rappler news website.

However, the incumbent Philippine administration under President Rodrigo Duterte has adopted a soft stance towards China since he took power in 2016.

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