MANILA: While ASEAN and China adopting a code of conduct framework on the South China Sea is “good news”, Singapore Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan says he does not want to “trivialise how difficult negotiations will be going forward.”
ASEAN and China adopted the framework on Sunday (Aug 6), with leaders expected to announce the formal start of negotiations on the code of conduct at the ASEAN Summit in November.
“Overall, the tone was positive, the situation is calmer, although some claimant states still continue to have concerns, which were expressed and echoed in the joint communique,” Dr Balakrishnan told Singapore reporters after a day of meetings.
He added the point is that progress has been made and the key index of this is the adoption of the framework.
“This is an important document because it represents, in a sense, consensus and more important than that, a commitment on behalf of all the 10 ASEAN states and China to make progress on this long overdue issue.”
When asked about criticism that the framework does not state the code will be legally binding, Dr Balakrishnan said “it’s premature to arrive at those conclusions”.
“Getting the framework (adopted) I would say is step 0.5, there is a lot. I think I don’t want to trivialise how difficult the negotiations will be going forward.”
However, he acknowledged that the question of a legally binding code of conduct will be a key issue.
“The (declaration of conduct) was not legally binding. Surely when we move into the code of conduct, it has got to have some additional or significant legal effect,” said Dr Balakrishnan.
“The exact form of words, the exact way lawyers, international lawyers will craft it, I think all these will be the subject of intense negotiations going forward.”
While not wanting to prejudge the issue, Dr Balakrishnan said that countries must bear in mind the “ultimate goal is peace, stability and confidence building in the South China Sea.”
He noted that this is also because so much of ASEAN’s trade flows through the South China Sea.
“Ultimately it achieves a level of interdependence. We are so intertwined that we will never allow differences to inflate into disputes or even incidents on the ground,” said Dr Balakrishnan.