MANILA, Philippines — Foreign ministers in Manila over the weekend emphasized self-restraint in the South China Sea and reaffirmed their countries’ commitment to a Code of Conduct in the region.
In a joint communiqué of the 50th Association of Southeast Asian Nations Foreign Ministers’ Meeting released Sunday night, ministers said they had “discussed extensively” matter related to the sea, parts of which are subject to maritime disputes.
They said they “took note of the concerns expressed by some ministers on the land reclamations and activities in the area, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region.”
The communiqué did not mention China, which has been documented to have undertaken large-scale reclamation and improvement works on man-made islands in the South China Sea.
The ministers also said that they reaffirmed the need “to exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities and avoid actions that may further complicate the situation, and pursue peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).”
The Philippines brought its dispute with China to arbitration in 2013 and a Hague-based court ruled in 2016 that China’s nine-dash-line claim has no basis in international law. The arbitral tribunal also said that China violated Philippine rights by barring access to Scarborough Shoal — also called Bajo de Masinloc and Panatag Shoal by the Philippines — a traditional fishing ground for Filipino and Vietnamese fishers.
Aside from the Philippines, ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia and and Vietnam have claims over parts of the South China Sea.
“We emphasized the importance of non-militarization and self-restraint in the conduct of all activities by claimants and all other states, including those mentioned in the [Declaration of Conduct] that could further complicate the situation and escalate tensions in the South China Sea,” the joint communiqué also said.
Among the principles of the 2002 Declaration are a commitment for freedom of navigation and overflight in the region, the peaceful resolution of disputes, and “refraining from action of inhabiting on the presently uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals, cays, and other features and to handle their differences in a constructive manner.”
Under the DOC, dispute resolution will be through “friendly consultations and negotiations by sovereign states directly concerned,” a position that China stressed in late July by telling ASEAN countries to keep regional outsiders from interfering in disputes.
Moving closer to a Code of Conduct
“We warmly welcomed the improving cooperation between ASEAN and China and are encouraged by the conclusion and adoption of the framework of a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, which will facilitate the work for the conclusion of an effective COC on a mutually-agreed timeline,” the foreign ministers said.
Ministers they are ready to begin talks on the Code of Conduct, a process that is expected to start this year. They said they have tasked senior officials to start negotiating on the Code of Conduct with China.
Earlier Sunday, China Foreign Minister Wang Yi said ministers had agreed on a three-step process for the development of the Code of Conduct.
“By the end of this month during the joint working group meeting on the implementation of code of conduct, all the parties will discuss the thinking, principle and plan for the next stage consultation of the code of conduct and we will build a consensus between China and ASEAN countries with necessary appropriations for that,” he said.
Wang however said there would be a precondition for the official start of the code of conduct consultations.
“When the situation in the South China Sea is generally stable, if there is no major disruption from outside parties,” he said.