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China, Asean OK ‘watered down’ guidelines on West Philippine Sea

NUSA DUA, Indonesia—Officials from Southeast Asia and China on Wednesday agreed on guidelines for cooperation in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), but diplomats conceded the deal was watered down in the quest for a compromise.

The agreement was reached after senior officials from both sides met during annual meetings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) in Bali, ahead of a gathering of their ministers on Thursday.

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The maritime dispute has so far dominated the agenda of the five-day Asean meetings, which started Tuesday.

While the guidelines were hailed publicly as a “significant step” in resolving territorial disputes in the resource-rich area, diplomats privately played down its significance saying it lacked specifics.

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Moreover, differences still remain on which areas of the West Philippine Sea are being disputed after China laid claims to the entire region and the Philippines said it would seek UN arbitration to define the areas under contention.

“Through fruitful and constructive discussions and dialogue, we have been able to arrive, at our level, at an agreement on the draft guidelines,” said Pham Quang Vinh, Vietnam’s top senior foreign ministry official.

“This is a significant and good start for us to work together to continue dialogue and cooperation with a view to further promote this stability and confidence in the region,” he told reporters after the meeting.

China refers to the disputed waters South China Sea, while Vietnam calls it the East Sea.

For final approval</strong.

Liu Zhenmin, China’s assistant minister of foreign affairs, said the officials would submit what they had approved to their ministers for final endorsement.

“This is an important milestone document on the cooperation among China and Asean countries,” Liu told reporters. “And we have a bright future and we are looking forward to future cooperation.”

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The guidelines, which have been under negotiation for nearly 10 years, spell out ways to implement a declaration of claimants on the need for a code of conduct to govern activities in the area.

Ultimate objective

The ultimate objective is for China and the Asean to agree on a legally binding “Regional Code of Conduct in the South China Sea,” but diplomats have said this remains far off.

There have been several recent incidents between claimants, particularly involving China, in the area, which is believed to be rich in oil and gas and is a crucial route for global shipping trade.

Breakthrough

A diplomatic source said the breakthrough came after the Asean agreed to drop a paragraph referring to Asean meeting as a whole to discuss a common position before facing China on the issue.

Beijing had opposed this on the grounds that not all Asean countries are claimants to the disputed waters.

Taiwan, China and Asean members the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia have overlapping claims to parts of the region.

The Asean’s other members are Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Burma (Myanmar), Singapore and Thailand.

Self-restraint

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono on Tuesday expressed frustration that the drawn-out talks over a code of conduct were making little progress.

In a joint communiqué, the Asean stressed the “importance of maintaining peace and stability in the South China Sea, the continued exercise of self-restraint by all parties concerned and the promotion of confidence-building measures in the area.”

“In this regard, we look forward to the finalization of the guidelines at the upcoming Asean-China Senior Officials Meeting (SOM) on the implementation of the DOC (Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea),” it said.

The Asean did not say when or where the next SOM will be held.

The communiqué, issued by the Asean secretariat in Jakarta, also “noted with appreciation the proposal of the Philippines (to transform the area into) a Zone of Peace, Freedom, Friendship and Cooperation.”

A team of “maritime experts” will study Manila’s proposal, according to Asean.

Institute for peace

The Asean also welcomed the Philippine offer to host a meeting of maritime experts later this year, as well as the establishment of the Asean Institute for Peace and Reconciliation.

The group also stressed the need to enhance “cooperation in capacity-building in the areas of conflict prevention, management and resolution; peacekeeping and post-conflict peace building in order to strengthen the vital role of Asean member-states in the maintenance of regional peace and security.”

Joint ‘harmless’ activities

A draft of the one-page guidelines seen by Agence France Presse on Wednesday said they were meant “to guide the implementation of possible joint cooperative activities, measures and projects” in the area.

The French news agency said such projects must be reached by consensus, carried out on a voluntary basis and that experts should be consulted.

But the diplomatic source, who asked not to be named, said the number of projects that could be undertaken had been whittled down to include such “harmless” activities such as joint rescue in times of distress.

On Saturday, the Asean foreign ministers will be joined by US Secretary of State State Hillary Clinton and Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi at the bigger Asean Regional Forum focused on security issues. Reports from AFP and Jerry E. Esplanada

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TAGS: ASEAN, Asean meetings, Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Bali, Indonesia, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, South China Sea, West Philippine Sea
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