April 19, 2018, 11:33 pm
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China sees code of conduct as ‘stabilizer’ in the region

THE Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and the European Union yesterday reaffirmed the importance of respect for the rule of law, sovereignty and territorial integrity, maritime security, freedom of navigation and overflight and peaceful resolution of disputes.

This as Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said China’s agreement to begin discussions with the Asean on the fine print of a code of conduct framework will be a “stabilizer” for the region.

“China’s greatest hope is for peace and stability in the South China Sea,” Li told Asean leaders in Manila.

The EU is among the most vocal supporter of a rules-based approach to addressing the maritime territorial dispute in the South China that pits China against Taiwan and Asean members the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei.

The statement was issued after the Asean-EU Summit which is part of the 31st Asean Summit and Related Meetings that Manila is hosting as this year’s chair of the 10-member Asean.

On Monday at the start of the two-day summit, the Asean and China said they agreed to start negotiations for a proposed code of conduct aimed at easing tension in the South China Sea.

Southeast Asia and China foreign ministers in August adopted a negotiating framework for a code of conduct in the South China Sea, a move they hailed as progress but seen by critics as a tactic to buy China time to consolidate its maritime power.

Li said there was a consensus on moving forward and to try to peacefully resolve the thorny issue.

“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 said, according to a transcript of his speech released by China’s Foreign Ministry on Tuesday.

Li did not give a timeframe, but said he hoped this move would be a “stabilizer” for the region.

Critics say the agreement to talk on the details of the code of conduct 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 manmade 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 but critics say the failure to outline as an initial objective the need to make the code legally binding and enforceable, or 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 all claim some or all of the South China Sea and its myriad shoals, reefs and islands.

The Asean-EU joint statement reiterated the importance of adhering to the United Nations charter, international law and the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia, to which the EU acceded in 2012.

“We also underline the importance of the respect of the rule of law, sovereignty and territorial integrity of states, maritime security and safety, freedom of navigation and overflight, and peaceful resolution of disputes, in accordance with the universally recognized principles of international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the relevant standards and recommendations of the International Civil Aviation Organization and the International Maritime Organization,” it said. – With Reuters
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