BORACAY, Philippines: ASEAN foreign ministers are set on completing a framework for a Code of Conduct (COC) on the South China Sea by June this year. But for that to happen, "there is some urgent homework that needs to be done," said Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan on Tuesday (Feb 21).
He was speaking on the sidelines of a two-day ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting at the Philippines' Boracay island.
"Basically we have a deadline of the first half of this year to try to complete framework for the COC in the South China Sea," said Dr Balakrishnan. "I am sure it is going to be difficult, but this is difficult but important work, and work which we are fully committed to doing our best," he added.
Philippine Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay had said earlier on Tuesday that the region's foreign ministers were confident that a framework for a code of maritime conduct could be agreed with Beijing by June, although they were also unanimous in their concern over China's militarisation of its artificial islands.
Dr Balakrishnsn said progress has been made last year, such as the proposed hotline for maritime emergencies and the Code on Unplanned Encounters at Sea. These are "confidence-building measures" that could generate momentum towards achieving a bigger goal, which is to have a legally-binding Code of Conduct, said Dr Balakrishnan.
"A framework which really builds on the elements which we already identified last year, to be able to put that down onto a piece of paper which we can all agree on and use that as a foundation for ultimately a legally binding COC, therein lies the challenge,” he said.
NEED FOR CLOSER ASEAN INTEGRATION
Against a backdrop of global uncertainty as well as the evolving dynamics of the relationship between the US and China, Dr Balakrishnan said ASEAN foreign ministers agreed that closer cooperation is needed.
"All of us were convinced that now more than ever before, we need closer, more effective ASEAN integration at an economic level, we need to bring down trade barriers, make it easier for ideas, products, services. In fact, we need to increase intra-ASEAN trade," he said.
ASEAN foreign ministers also reaffirmed the need for the regional bloc to remain united, to be cohesive and effective, if it is to maintain its relevance and centrality.
On maintaining peace and stability in the region, Dr Balakrishnan said: "Whatever happens in the rest of the world – and we don’t control the agenda of the superpowers - we do need to make sure to the best extent possible, that we maintain an oasis of peace and stability in this part of the world."