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ASEAN welcomes proposals by China to enhance partnerships

ASEAN said it welcomes the substantive proposals and engagement by China to enhance strategic partnerships. On the South China Sea issue, Beijing stressed that work on the Code of Conduct (COC) needs to be accelerated.

NAY PYI TAW: Southeast Asian countries and China have shown political will to try to resolve territorial disputes in the South China Sea. However, Singapore's Foreign Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said there has to be a closer connection between expressions of diplomacy and what happens on the ground.

He was speaking on Saturday (Aug 9) to reporters on the sidelines of the ASEAN ministerial meetings in Myanmar's capital city Nay Pyi Taw. Foreign ministers from ASEAN and China met on the second day of meetings, with the atmosphere described as good.

ASEAN said it welcomes the substantive proposals and engagement by China to enhance strategic partnerships. China said it is willing to discuss plans for the next stage of the China-ASEAN Free Trade Agreement. On the maritime cooperation front, China suggested that 2015 be designated as China-ASEAN maritime cooperation year.

On the South China Sea issue, Beijing stressed that work on the more specific Code of Conduct (COC) - which is long delayed - needs to be accelerated. The COC is expected to contain guidelines on the activities in the South China Sea that are permissible and accepted by China and all 10 ASEAN member states.

Mr Shanmugam said: "So far the positive momentum has been that officials have met. We have tried to map out the structure, and I have said it before I didn't expect that it's going to move at a very fast pace.

"I didn't think it will be finished in a year. For example, the DOC (Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, made in 2002) took us a long time to negotiate. And we must also be realistic: Territorial claims that people make against each other are very difficult to solve." 

At this point, ASEAN and China have been working on what constitutes the key elements of the Code of Conduct on the South China Sea. Both parties now say they are ready to advance consultations. The next round of meetings will be in October in Thailand where officials will begin the process of drafting the Code of Conduct.

Recently the Philippines, which is one of the claimant states, had proposed a three-stage resolution to the territorial disputes. Manila proposed that ASEAN must immediately call for a stop to all activities that can escalate tensions in the area. However, China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi rejected the proposal, saying that Philippines had jumped to the third stage by seeking international arbitration.

The final approach is to underscore the need for a settlement mechanism to bring the disputes to a final and enduring resolution anchored on international law - a move that the Philippines took when it filed a case against China last year.

Mr Wang said: "These proposals themselves should be objective, fair and constructive, instead of causing new problems or differences, or even being driven by ulterior motives." China said it is ready to exercise restraint and will continue to find ways to settle disputes peacefully.

On Sunday, foreign ministers are again expected to discuss the South China Sea issue when they meet at the East Asia Summit and the ASEAN Regional Forum. 

Click to read the Joint Communique of the 47th ASEAN Foreign Ministers' Meeting

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