ASEAN leaders on Thursday called for urgent talks with China to ensure that the region’s maritime disputes did not escalate into violence, with the Philippines and Vietnam renewing calls for a binding “code of conduct” that would set clear rules for how claimants to the disputed territories of the South China Sea can act.
In a joint statement released at the end of the two-day ASEAN summit, leaders of the 10-member bloc emphasised the importance of “peace, stability and maritime security in the region” and said it will “continue to work actively with China on the way forward for the early conclusion of a code of conduct.”
“We all agreed to encourage continuing discussions, dialogues and consultations at all levels, especially claimant countries, and to keep the lines of communication open,” said Brunei’s leader, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, host of this year’s ASEAN summits.
According to diplomats, Thailand has proposed a meeting of the bloc’s foreign ministers where they could discuss the dispute ahead of a scheduled talk with their Chinese counterpart later this year.
ASEAN Secretary-General Le Luong Minh said the bloc would approach China with a common stance. "When we come to our partners to discuss important issues, we come as a group and we come with one common position," he said, adding that the next move would be to get China to participate in the negotiations.
China claims it has sovereign rights to nearly all of the South China Sea, which is believed to sit atop huge deposits of oil and gas. The claims are however contested by ASEAN members such as the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei.
The disputes have at different points in time threatened to divide ASEAN. Last year, its foreign ministers failed to issue a joint statement — a first in the bloc’s 45-year history — after Cambodia, a China ally, refused mention of the territorial rifts in the communiqué, provoking protests from the Philippines and Vietnam.
However, analysts say the prospects for a legally binding code of conduct appear dim.
"China was never enthusiastic about a code of conduct, as it does not want to sign an agreement that will constrain its sovereignty-building activities," Ian Storey, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, told AFP. "So there is unity of purpose and one can always be hopeful that that will lead to something more concrete."
China has repeatedly stressed that the code of conduct can only enhance mutual cooperation, not solve sovereignty disputes.
"The South China Sea dispute can be discussed at the summit, but when it comes down to specific boundary drawing and island sovereignty, ASEAN has no right to decide,” said Xu Ning Ning, executive secretary general of China-ASEAN Business Council.