ASEAN sum­mit seeks pact with China over sea dis­pute

The Washington Times Daily - - WORLD - BY JIM GOMEZ

MANILA, PHILIP­PINES | South­east Asia’s top diplo­mats will seek talks “as soon as pos­si­ble” on a pro­posed nonag­gres­sion pact with China aimed at pre­vent­ing clashes in the South China Sea, and will likely hold back on crit­i­cism of China’s ag­gres­sive acts in the dis­puted waters in a week­end sum­mit.

An ini­tial draft of a joint com­mu­nique to be is­sued by the As­so­ci­a­tion of South­east Asian Na­tions for­eign min­is­ters, seen by The Associated Press on Wed­nes­day, says they will ask se­nior diplo­mats to im­me­di­ately ini­ti­ate talks on the so-called “Code of Con­duct” in the dis­puted sea af­ter their gov­ern­ments agreed on a frame­work of the ac­cord with China in May.

The long-seething dis­putes in the South China Sea, alarm over North Korea’s mis­sile tests and the rise of Is­lamic rad­i­cal­ism in the re­gion amid a deadly siege by Is­lamic State group-linked mil­i­tants in the south­ern Philip­pines are ex­pected to grab the spot­light in the meet­ings of ASEAN for­eign min­is­ters and their Asian and West­ern coun­ter­parts in Manila start­ing Satur­day.

Robe­spierre Bo­li­var, spokesman of the De­part­ment of For­eign Af­fairs, de­scribed the ini­tial progress af­ter years of ef­forts by South­east Asian coun­tries to ne­go­ti­ate a code of con­duct with China “as a very big step.”

Crit­ics have said the frame­work serves only as a brief out­line of pre­vi­ously agreed prin­ci­ples and fails to men­tion ris­ing con­cerns over China’s newly built is­lands or an ar­bi­tra­tion rul­ing last year that in­val­i­dated Bei­jing’s his­toric ba­sis for its claims to vir­tu­ally all of the South China Sea. Bei­jing has re­fused to rec­og­nize the rul­ing based on a 1982 mar­itime treaty.

A fi­nal copy of the frame­work seen by the AP also did not men­tion whether the Code of Con­duct should be legally bind­ing, which most ASEAN states de­mand but China op­poses, or the ex­tent of dis­puted ar­eas to be cov­ered by such a code. The code will not serve as a tool to set­tle ter­ri­to­rial dis­putes, ac­cord­ing to the frame­work.

The U.S. has pressed China’s neigh­bors to push back against Bei­jing’s ag­gres­sive claims in the South China Sea. Su­san Thorn­ton, act­ing as­sis­tant sec­re­tary of state for East Asian and Pa­cific Af­fairs, de­nied in a brief­ing with re­porters Wed­nes­day that the is­sue has fallen off the radar un­der Pres­i­dent Trump.

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