ASEAN summit seeks pact with China over sea dispute
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.