The United States, Japan and Australia expressed “serious concerns” Monday over disputes concerning the South China Sea, while calling for a halt to land reclamation and military actions in the area that could increase tensions or cause permanent environmental damage.
The three countries issued a joint statement after U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono met in the Philippines on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) ministerial meeting.
They called on China and the Philippines to abide by an arbitration ruling last year that invalidated much of China’s territorial claim to the South China Sea, which is claimed in part by Taiwan and ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.
The statement also called on ASEAN members and China to ensure that a code of conduct they have pledged to develop regarding the South China Sea be “legally binding, meaningful, effective, and consistent with international law.”
The code of conduct would be aimed at avoiding accidents as the claimant countries fish, explore for oil and gas or develop some of the estimated 500 tiny islets. China has resisted having the agreement be binding, and has reinforced its claims to the sea with the construction of artificial islands that the United States and others have criticized.
ASEAN ministers said in a communique Sunday they “warmly welcome improving cooperation” with China and are ready to begin substantive negotiation on the code of conduct, but made no mention of making it binding.
They also noted concerns expressed by some members about land reclamations and emphasized “the importance of non-militarization.”