The 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations and China are expected to finalize the guidelines to implement a declaration of conduct among countries involved in disputes in the South China Sea this year, the group’s secretary general said Sunday.
”I can see that there is a strong determination on both sides that we will try to finish this within this year and then take advantage of next year at the 10th anniversary of the DOC (Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea to conclude),” ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan told Kyodo News in an interview.
”We are certainly very, very hopeful that we can achieve agreement on the new language, on the new document and to be able to conclude and sign formally next year in Cambodia,” he added.
The interview took place on the sidelines of a series of ASEAN Ministerial Meetings and its related meetings that will officially start Tuesday and last through Sunday in the Nusa Dua beach resort on the Indonesian island Bali.
According to Surin, ASEAN and China have achieved ”a sense of common urgency” that they can and will manage the differences on the South China Sea peacefully.
”This is a critical moment for ASEAN and China to send their signal out to the world, because it has been an issue of high anxiety of the global community,” the secretary general said.
”We have common responsibility to bring down that anxiety because East Asia has been so important, critical to the health of the global community — economic health, peace and security,” he added.
China and other ASEAN dialogue partners will join the group in the ASEAN Regional Forum on July 23 to discuss regional security issues, including disputed claims to the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea between some ASEAN member countries and China.
ASEAN and China agreed on the DOC in 2002 to ensure the peaceful resolution of disputes in strategic sea lanes, but they need to establish a code of conduct that is legally binding.
China, however, has been reluctant to enter into a binding agreement.
Indonesia has proposed guidelines to implement cooperation between its Southeast Asian neighbors and China, in an apparent effort to ease the tension, by providing more detailed paragraphs compared to a draft currently discussed by ASEAN and China, ASEAN diplomatic sources said.
The guidelines are expected to be discussed during the ASEAN-China senior officials’ meeting Wednesday that may take place before the ASEAN-China foreign ministerial meeting on Bali on Thursday.
The sources said that under the guidelines both sides may explore or undertake cooperative activities such as environmental protection, search and rescue operations and combating transnational crime on a voluntary basis and in a step-by-step approach.
With joint cooperative activities, it is expected mutual trust and understanding can be built, tension can be eased and China’s position may soften.
All or parts of the South China Sea, which contains some of the busiest shipping lanes in the world and is believed to be rich in oil and gas, are claimed by Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.
China and Vietnam are the most vocal in their claims and have been involved in diplomatic disputes in recent years involving fishing vessels and patrol boats.
Tensions also rose this year between China and the Philippines when two Chinese ships ordered a Philippine survey ship away from an area called Reed Bank, claimed by the Philippines.
The Philippines sent in military aircraft and has since protested strongly to China.
China has insisted it will only talk to each of the claimant countries on a bilateral basis, but the much smaller claimants see that position as a way for China to impose its might on them.
Many of them would rather that the claims be discussed and settled multilaterally, where the talks might be on a more equal basis.
China’s insistence on bilateral talks means many observers doubt any breakthrough in the territorial disputes will be coming soon.
Despite China’s objection to other countries’ intervention in this matter, U.S. State Secretary Hillary Clinton may raise the issue during a meeting with her counterparts in the ARF on Saturday.
”The U.S. position is that they are interested in the stability, security, the free passage because…they have their vessels moving around the region,” Surin said of U.S. concerns about the dispute.
In a related development, an ASEAN diplomatic source said the U.S. ”active movement in the region has made China inevitably to turn to a dialogue with ASEAN countries. Beijing cannot stay away from talking with us.” ”The draft guideline is just a paper that will lead us into developing a code of conduct, so we should be able to find a compromise in order to go for a final aim which is much more vital for us all,” the source added.
In July last year, China complained when Clinton told the ARF ministerial meeting in Vietnam that the peaceful resolution of disputes in the South China Sea is in the U.S. national interest.
Although the United States takes no official position on the conflicting sovereignty claims in the region, it insists on unfettered access to sea lanes through the South China Sea, she said.
The ASEAN members are Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
The ARF brings together foreign ministers from ASEAN and such countries as North and South Korea, China, Japan, the United States, India and Russia.