By Reuters, Genalyn Kabiling, and Roy Mabasa
China will begin discussions with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on the fine print of a Code of Conduct (COC) for the disputed South China Sea in a move that will stabilize the region, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said.
“China’s greatest hope is for peace and stability in the South China Sea,” Li told ASEAN leaders in Manila. A transcript of his speech was released by China’s Foreign Ministry yesterday.
“We hope the talks on the code of conduct will bolster mutual understanding and trust. We will strive under the agreement, to reach a consensus on achieving early implementation of the Code of Conduct,” Li, addressing leaders of ASEAN in Manila on Monday, said.
He said there was a consensus on moving forward to try to peacefully resolve the thorny issue.
Critics say the agreement to talk on the details of the COC is only an incremental move, with a final agreement not likely anytime soon. Despite a period of relative stability in the South China Sea, some countries at the summit said this shouldn’t be taken for granted.
The framework seeks to advance a 2002 Declaration of Conduct (DOC) of Parties in the South China Sea, which has mostly been ignored by claimant states, particularly China, which has built seven man-made islands in disputed waters, three of which are equipped with runways, surface-to-air missiles, and radars.
All parties say the framework is only an outline for how the code will be established. Critics say the failure to outline provisions to make the code legally binding and enforceable, and have a dispute resolution mechanism, raises doubts about how effective the pact will be.
Signing China up to a legally binding and enforceable code for the strategic waterway has long been a goal for claimant members of ASEAN, some of which have sparred for years over what they see as China’s disregard for their sovereign rights and its blocking of fishermen and energy exploration efforts.
Malaysia, Taiwan, Brunei, Vietnam, and the Philippines claim some or all of the South China Sea and its myriad shoals, reefs, and islands.
Agree to negotiate
The 10 leaders of ASEAN have already agreed to officially begin negotiations for the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea “while the situation is calmer now.”
The ASEAN leaders said the framework of the COC, which was adopted in Manila last August 6, was “an important milestone.”
With the adoption of the framework, ASEAN leaders said they look forward to an early conclusion of substantive and effective COC, without providing specific details on when the negotiation should take place.
What is important, according to the ASEAN leaders’ draft statement, is “that we cooperate to maintain peace, stability, freedom of navigation in and over-flight above the SCS, in accordance with international law, including the 1982 UNCLOS.”
‘It is in our collective interest to avoid miscalculations that could lead to escalation of tensions,” they said.
The Philippines will act as “country coordinator” for the ASEAN-China Summit next year with the assumption of Singapore as the next chair of the regional bloc.
Marine resources protection
Meanwhile, the 10-member ASEAN and China also vowed to ensure the protection of the coastal and marine resources in the South China Sea in the next 10 years pending efforts to settle the conflict in the disputed territory.
In the “Declaration for a Decade of Coastal and Marine Environmental Protection in the South China Sea (2017-2027),” the leaders agreed that the environmental situation in the area requires “collective attention and action to protect the marine ecosystem and biodiversity.”
The two-page document was released after the ASEAN leaders led by President Duterte held a summit with Chinese Premier Li last Monday.
In the declaration, the leaders recognized “the importance of protecting the South China Sea as a natural resource base for economic and social development for the present and future generations and recognizing the benefits that would be gained from having the South China Sea as a sea of peace, stability and prosperity.”
“The governments of ASEAN member states and China are committed to meet the aspirations of this Declaration,” it added.
The ASEAN and China also acknowledged that “the preservation and sustainable management of the coastal and marine environment is vital to the economic well-being and enhanced quality of life of the peoples of ASEAN Member States and China.”
They also noted the need to promote responsible fishing practices, environmentally friendly fishing methods, and combatting illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUUF), to ensure sustainable fishery resources and achieve food security.
“Pending a comprehensive and durable settlement of territorial and jurisdictional disputes, the parties concerned may explore or undertake relevant cooperative activities, in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law, including the UNCLOS 1982, without prejudice to the positions of the concerned parties to the dispute,” it said.
China claims most of the territories in the South China Sea, stepping up its reclamation works and militarization that drew protest from other claimant nations.
The Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan, also overlapping claims in the South China Sea, believed to be rich in both marine resources and oil and natural gas.