MANILA – China’s top diplomat said Sunday that talks for a nonaggression pact aimed at preventing clashes from erupting in the disputed South China Sea may start this year if “outside parties” don’t cause a major disruption.
Foreign Minister Wang Yi said the start of talks for a “code of conduct” in the disputed waters may be announced by the heads of state of China and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations at their annual summit in the Philippines in November if Beijing’s conditions are met.
Wang told a news conference in Manila that those conditions include non-interference by “outside parties,” apparently referring to the United States, which Beijing has frequently accused of meddling in what it says is an Asian dispute that should be resolved only by the countries involved.
China’s territorial disputes in the strategic and potentially oil- and gas-rich waterway with five other governments intensified after it built islands in disputed waters and reportedly started to install a missile defense system on them, alarming rival claimant states, the U.S. and other Western governments.
“If there is no major disruption from outside parties, with that as the precondition, then we will consider during the November leaders’ meeting, we will jointly announce the official start of the code of conduct consultation,” Wang said.
The situation in the South China Sea should also be “generally stable,” he said.
“China and ASEAN have the ability to work together to maintain regional peace and stability and we will work out regional rules that we mutually agreed upon so as to open up a bright future for our future relations,” he said.
A Philippine government spokesman, Robespierre Bolivar, also announced the adoption of the code’s framework and consensus on steps to start negotiations on the actual code. He did not mention any preconditions.
“The leaders of ASEAN and China are expected to announce the formal start of negotiations on the code at their summit in November,” Bolivar told reporters.
Acting U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Susan Thornton said countries locked in the sea disputes should halt provocative moves to foster a diplomatic resolution.
“We think all of the countries in the region should agree that while they have this diplomatic process going on that they would stop improving or expanding or militarizing any of their outposts,” Thornton said.
China had long been perceived as delaying negotiations with ASEAN for the maritime code to allow it to launch and complete its land reclamations in the South China Sea without any such regulatory restrictions. Wang’s mention of the vague conditions can allow China to delay or halt the planned talks for any reason.
While China has had robust economic ties with Southeast Asia, a diverse region of more than 600 million people with a combined GDP of $2.4 trillion, both have tangled for years over the territorial conflicts. Tensions flared alarmingly in recent years over China’s island-building works in one of the most disputed regions, where U.S. naval and aerial patrols have challenged Beijing’s claims.
ASEAN foreign ministers failed to promptly issue a joint communique after their annual gathering in Manila on Saturday due to a disagreement on the wordings of chapters pertaining to the territorial rifts and concern over North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missile tests, two Southeast Asian diplomats said Sunday.
One of the diplomats said wording on the South China Sea issue to be included in the communique had not yet been finalized, with Vietnam reiterating its position that ASEAN should cite regional concerns over China’s land reclamation and construction of its man-made islands.
China has steadfastly opposed any mention in ASEAN statements of its island-building in the disputed waters, its reported installation of a missile defense system on the new features and an arbitration ruling that invalidated Beijing’s historical claims to the strategic waters.
Although it is not an ASEAN member, China can exert its influence on allies like ASEAN member Cambodia to reject any move it deems inimical to its interest. An unwieldy bloc of democracies, monarchies and authoritarian regimes, the regional grouping decides by consensus, meaning just one member state can shoot down any proposal.
Another diplomat said Cambodia also expressed concern over the ASEAN foreign ministers’ issuance of a separate statement criticizing North Korea’s two ICBM tests last month.
Cambodia wanted its sentiments on the Korean Peninsula better reflected in the ASEAN foreign ministers’ joint communique, stalling its issuance Saturday, the diplomat said, adding that Cambodia’s stance may have been influenced by China.
Both Cambodia and North Korea are China’s allies.
Washington has asked countries, including the ASEAN member states, to help isolate North Korea diplomatically to force it to stop provocative acts. While China agrees with sanctions on the North, Wang said Sunday that they should be aimed at forcing Pyongyang to return to negotiations directed at taming its nuclear ambitions.
“Sanctions are needed, but by no means the ultimate goal,” Wang, who was in Manila for the talks with the ASEAN ministers, said in a statement posted on the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s website.
Bolivar had said the ministers’ joint communique would be issued promptly Saturday. He took back the announcement later and said the communique may be made public with other statements on Monday or Tuesday.