ASEAN foreign ministers endorse framework of South China Sea code of conduct

ASEAN foreign ministers endorse framework of South China Sea code of conduct

Flags of ASEAN member nations outside the venue of the foreign ministers' meeting in Manila. 

MANILA: Foreign ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on Saturday (Aug 5) endorsed a framework for the South China Sea code of conduct, with the intention for it to be adopted during the ASEAN-China meeting on Sunday.

This is expected to pave the way for the next phase of negotiations on the code of conduct to manage the maritime dispute.

Spokesperson for the Philippines Department of Foreign Affairs, Mr Robespierre Bolivar, revealed this during a media briefing after the ASEAN foreign ministers met in Manila.

A draft of the document had been agreed on in May after a meeting between ASEAN and China officials.

Mr Bolivar reiterated that the Philippines’ preference is for the code of conduct to be a legally binding one, even though the framework makes no mention of this.

“The framework, again, is an outline. It helps structure the discussions, negotiations, eventually for the code of conduct,” said Mr Bolivar.

“When the negotiations start, then that is when you see countries putting in the more substantive aspects of the code. So it’s entirely possible that that issue will be discussed and negotiated upon.”

JOINT COMMUNIQUE STILL BEING NEGOTIATED

As for the annual joint communique that’s issued by ASEAN foreign ministers, reports have suggested that the document has been delayed due to a lack of consensus on how to refer to disputes in the South China Sea.

The customary communique was not issued at the end of Saturday's meeting. But the Philippines Department of Foreign Affairs said that the document is likely to be released at the close of the ASEAN meetings, together with the chairman’s statement.

The meetings officially come to a close on Tuesday (Aug 8). 

Channel NewsAsia understands that the communique is still being negotiated but is almost finalised, pending feedback from Cambodia. 

Foreign ministers had met late on Friday night, with one of the issues discussed being the phrasing of the South China Sea issue in the joint communique.

It has also been reported that Vietnam had raised concerns over the language used in the document, calling for a tougher stance to be taken towards China.

A Chinese Coast Guard ship (R) using a water cannon to attack a Vietnamese Fisheries Surveillance boat near the site of a Chinese oil rig in disputed waters of the South China Sea in 2014. (Photo: AFP/Vietnam News Agency)

A draft of the document that had been leaked to media showed no mention of China’s arming and building of artificial islands in the disputed waters.

However, Channel NewsAsia has learnt that the phrasing in the communique has been tweaked to instead reflect ASEAN’s belief in upholding the “principle of non-militarisation”, without making reference to any specific country.

The paragraphs on the South China Sea in the communique are largely expected to focus on some of the principles articulated in last year’s statement, while acknowledging an improvement in the relationship between ASEAN and China on the issue.

China claims nearly all of the resource-rich South China Sea that is also claimed by ASEAN members Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines.

“GRAVE CONCERNS” OVER NORTH KOREA: FOREIGN MINISTERS

What ASEAN foreign ministers could agree on was their stance on escalating tensions in the Korean Peninsula. They issued a joint statement on Saturday, reiterating their “grave concerns” over North Korea's recent testing of long-range missiles.

A Jul 28, 2017 photo distributed by the North Korean government shows what was said to be the launch of a Hwasong-14 intercontinental ballistic missile at an undisclosed location in North Korea. (Photo: Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP)

The statement noted that the developments “seriously threaten peace, security, and stability in the region and the world.”

Ministers also urged North Korea to “immediately comply fully” with its obligations under all relevant UN Security Council resolutions.

The statement added that ASEAN also stands ready to play a “constructive role in contributing to peace and stability in the Korean Peninsula”.

All eyes will also be on the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) that is set to take place on Monday, which brings together 27 foreign ministers - including those of Russia, Japan, South Korea, the United States, China and North Korea - to discuss Asian security issues.

When asked about calls from the US for ASEAN to downgrade diplomatic engagements with North Korea, Mr Bolivar pointed out that the ARF is the only forum outside of the United Nations that includes the relevant parties around the table to discuss issues.

“ASEAN wants the North Koreans to know that ASEAN remains concerned about what it’s doing, but also that we want to engage North Korea in a face to face, candid dialogue on what’s happening in the Korean Peninsula,” said Mr Bolivar.

“We hope this dialogue will de-escalate tensions.”

Source: CNA/gs/ec

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