ASEAN diplomats reported “significant” progress on negotiating guidelines for behaviour in the South China Sea, a step toward reconciliation in a row that has plagued relations in the region for years.
At the ASEAN Regional Forum held in Bali this week, diplomats said they had reached guidelines aimed at implementing the “Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea.” Though the nonbinding deal was signed in 2002, it has largely been bypassed by the claimants since then.
Vietnamese foreign official Pham Quang Vinh called the latest agreement “a significant and good start for us to work together to continue dialogue and cooperation,” while ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan called the guidelines a “breakthrough.”
However, not all parties are satisfied with the deal. Philippines Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said the Philippines would go along with the terms, but that the agreement still fell short of a tougher pact needed to settle competing claims.
He said he would have liked to see ASEAN take a stronger position by issuing guidelines that lay out clear criteria to settle disputes based on international law. “The necessary elements to make the guidelines succeed are still incomplete,” he said, added that Manila intends to press ahead with plans to raise its claim before a United Nations tribunal.
Report & Analysis: Asian diplomats point to progress on sea dispute [WSJ, 21 Jul 2011]
The new guidelines talk of “possible joint cooperative activities, measures and projects” and other confidence-building measures. Secretary-General Pitsuwan said a final binding settlement was vital to regional stability and prosperity, but he could not say when a fully fledged code of conduct would be finalised.
For now, the guidelines exist only as an initial set of steps towards making the 2002 declaration more conclusive.
Report & Analysis: ASEAN, China hail progress on South China Sea disputes [AFP, 20 Jul 2011]
Still, progress on developing conduct in the Sea represents some of the first positive news on the contested area after months of escalating tension.
SIIA Timeline: Disputes in the South China Sea
In the latest incident on Wednesday, a group of Filipino officials traveled to the Spratly Islands to affirm their country’s claims there. A Chinese embassy spokesman condemned the trip as serving only to “undermine peace and stability in the region and sabotage the China-Philippine relationship.”
Earlier this week, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono urged ASEAN ministers to push harder for peace and stability in the region, making the conflict a key topic of discussion at the Forum.
Report: ASEAN “needs to see progress in South China Sea row” [CNA, 19 Jul 2011]
Analysts say the agreement may signify a desire by China and ASEAN leaders to tone down the issue and cooperate ahead of a visit by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is due to arrive in Bali on Thursday. Ms Clinton has called on Asian leaders to resolve the dispute through international legal channels, though China has preferred to negotiate with individual claimants and has told the US not to interfere.
However, relations between the US and China are already being tested after Beijing’s anger following US President Barack Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama last week. The two countries’ strained ties will hang in the background of any negotiations that take place at the Forum.
US officials said Ms Clinton will emphasise Washington’s position that it has national interests at stake in ensuring that international waterways remain open to navigation.
“China’s card is its tightening economic ties with ASEAN, and it will certainly use it to emphasise the common interest between China and ASEAN, especially in view of the weak economies in the US and Japan,” said Joseph Cheng, a professor at City University of Hong Kong.
Report & Analysis: US-China row may take turn for worse at Asia security meet [IBT, 19 Jul 2011]