SINGAPORE: Foreign ministers from Southeast Asia and China have agreed on a single draft document that will form the basis of negotiations for a code of conduct in the South China Sea.
This was announced by Singapore’s Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan on Thursday (Aug 2) at the start of an annual ministerial meeting between China and the member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Besides being the ASEAN chair this year, Singapore is the country coordinator of ASEAN-China dialogue relations.
China has overlapping territorial and maritime claims in the South China Sea with several ASEAN members, including Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.
Negotiations on the code of conduct began in March, and both sides arrived at the first draft during talks held two months ago at China’s Changsha city, said Dr Balakrishnan.
Calling it “yet another milestone”, the minister said the single draft negotiating text will be a “living document and the basis of future code of conduct negotiations”. Both sides also agreed on the key modalities for future rounds of negotiations.
When asked what these key modalities were, Dr Balakrishnan, who held a press conference after the ministerial meeting, declined to reveal details citing the “sensitive nature” of the negotiations.
He also said that the agreement on a single text does not mean that negotiations are over, or that all the competing claims over territory in the South China Sea are resolved as the code of conduct “was never meant to resolve territorial disputes”.
Dr Balakrishnan added that it would be premature to set a deadline for the negotiations on the code of conduct as it involves a "dynamic, evolving situation".
“Right now, everyone is glad that we have reached this stage. Everyone hopes that we will be able to accelerate the process but I’m not in the position to set specific deadlines," he said, while adding that it is better to "maintain some flexibility so that nobody feels locked in" for such negotiations.
POSITIVE ASEAN-CHINA COOPERATION
Dr Balakrishnan, who is the co-chair of Thursday’s meeting, said ASEAN-China cooperation has “had a good run” over the past three years.
Relations have been underpinned by robust economic linkages, he said.
China has been ASEAN’s top trading partner for eight consecutive years, while the regional grouping’s free trade agreement (FTA) with China was upgraded in 2015.
Both sides have a joint target of US$1 trillion in trade and US$150 billion in investment by 2020.
ASEAN and China have also renewed their commitment to expedite negotiations on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), as part of efforts to promote economic integration and trade liberalisation.
There was also close cooperation in other areas, including anti-corruption, connectivity, education, human resource development, science and technology.
However, Dr Balakrishnan said such “strong and substantive cooperation is only possible with mutual trust and confidence”.
“Where there are disagreements from time to time, the key is to seek out common ground, focus on practical cooperation and resolve differences peacefully and in the spirit of goodwill,” he said.
These include efforts by the ASEAN member states and China to work towards a full and effective implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties (DOC) in the South China Sea, as well as an early conclusion of an effective code of conduct.
The DOC was inked in 2002, calling for disputes to be managed by peaceful means and in accordance with international law, but ASEAN and China have been seeking to make progress on that declaration with a code of conduct.
In 2016, both sides also adopted a code for unplanned encounters in the South China Sea, followed by the operationalisation of an emergency hotline for maritime emergencies in the vital waterway in 2017.
“China is one of ASEAN’s most substantive dialogue partners,” said Dr Balakrishnan. “All in all, ASEAN-China cooperation has enjoyed a very good run over the last three years but there is much more to be done.”
For instance, officials on Thursday will endorse a statement for a vision that outlines the broad and strategic overview of cooperation between ASEAN and China until 2030.
“We look forward to the leaders adopting this statement at the 21st ASEAN-China Summit in November 2018,” the minister said.
Singapore will hand over the role of coordinator to the Philippines after Thursday’s meeting, which is held as part of the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting and related meetings under way at the Singapore Expo this week.