TOKYO — The Association of Southeast Asian Nations will aim for a legally binding code of conduct on the South China Sea territorial dispute when it negotiates with Beijing, ASEAN Secretary-General Le Luong Minh told the Nikkei Asian Review on Monday.
Senior ASEAN and Chinese diplomats agreed on a draft framework for the code during a meeting in Guiyang last month. But the framework, which lays down the basic guidelines for coming up with rules, will have to be approved by ministers and leaders before parties can discuss specific details, Minh said. A leaders summit is slated for November in Manila.
“For the COC to be capable of [not only] preventing but also managing incidents that took place in the past years since the inception of the DOC, it is the view of the ASEAN countries that the COC must be a legally binding instrument,” Minh said after speaking at a panel discussion during the first day of the 23rd International Conference on the Future of Asia, organized by Nikkei Inc.
DOC refers to the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, a non-binding agreement signed by ASEAN and China in 2002.
Beijing claims ownership of nearly the entire South China Sea, including areas ASEAN member states Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines say are part of their exclusive economic zones.
Under the DOC, parties agreed to refrain from actions that could complicate the situation in the area, settle disputes through peaceful means, and adopt a code of conduct, among other measures. Still, some parties carried out reclamation work, most notably China’s move to transform seven underwater features into artificial islands with military facilities. Clashes between Chinese and Vietnamese naval forces near the Paracel Islands and a standoff between the Chinese and Philippine navies near the Scarborough Shoal were also reported in recent years.
Minh said ASEAN also wants an “early conclusion” for the code of conduct. China, however, has not openly backed the idea of having legally binding rules, something that analysts see as a major factor that could further delay the COC.
Still, an ASEAN member state has hailed the draft framework as a milestone. “The prospects of having a code of conduct have never been better,” said Philippine Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Enrique Manalo during the panel discussion in which Minh also spoke.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, this year’s chair of ASEAN, has set aside the territorial dispute with China in favor of billions in economic deals. “The element of trust has helped in the negotiation” for the framework, Manalo said.