Foreign ministers from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have agreed to key points surrounding maritime boundaries in the South China Sea and are prepared to reach out to China to resolve any disputes, said Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen on Monday, after first day of talks concluded at the annual ASEAN regional forum in Phnom Penh.
The recent tension surrounding China and several ASEAN nations, including the Philippines and Vietnam, had been expected to be top of the agenda for the regional forum this week, but regional leaders now appears to be moving quickly in order to form a common consensus ahead of discussions with China.
"Foreign ministers have agreed to have the ASEAN senior officials meet with the senior official from China to discuss the (code of conduct) from now on," said Cambodia’s secretary of state at the foreign ministry Kao Kim Hourn, whose country holds the rotating chairmanship for ASEAN.
"We should put emphasis on the implementation of the declaration of conduct, including the eventual conclusion of the code of conduct in the South China Sea," added Hun Sen, who opened the forum by stressing the need for urgency in addressing the territorial dispute.
ââOver the last few years, ASEAN members such as Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia have all claimed territory in the South China Sea, though the Chinese government has repeatedly insisted that the entire body of water rightfully belongs to them.
And while both China and ASEAN signed a Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea nearly a decade ago, which stated that all parties should resolve the situation peacefully, neither side are yet ready to formalise the declaration into a code of conduct.
Subsequently, the U.S. government has also taken an interest into the region, with U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton expected to join the ASEAN regional forum for talks later this week.
Ms Clinton had previously said the US has a "national interest" in open access to the sea, but observers predict a softer stance this week, with Washington likely to downplay friction with China.
"Her point here is to move away from that and re-deflect attention to the much broader interests she'll argue the U.S. has in the region, and that the U.S. is not out to contain, but to cooperate with China," said Carlyle Thayer, an specialist on ASEAN affairs with at the University of New South Wales, to the Voice of America.
Nevertheless, the Chinese response to ASEAN and the U.S. has been fairly negative, with China's foreign ministry spokesman Liu Weimin telling journalists that the Chinese government would only discuss the issue “when conditions are ripe.”
“I want to stress that the COC (code of conduct) is not aimed at resolving disputes, but aimed at building mutual trust and deepening cooperation,” said Liu, as quoted by AFP.
Additionally an editorial published in the state-run People’s Daily on Tuesday appeared to belittle ASEAN’s resolution and warned that “further provocation from Vietnam and the Philippines would mean direct confrontation with China's angry public.”
“ASEAN can only play a role in mediating, and never dictate affairs concerning territorial demarcation. As long as ASEAN remains rational, it will not accept Vietnam and the Philippines' request,” wrote the People’s Daily.
“If ASEAN becomes deeply embroiled and the South China Sea issue tops its agenda, it will mean an evolutionary change in ASEAN's geopolitical role. ASEAN is not ready for it, and no agreement will be reached among its members,” it added.
“The South China Sea issue would be much worse than today if it hadn't been for China's restraint. But it would be extremely naïve of Manila and Hanoi to press China to hold back more.”
“China will not sacrifice its territorial interest due to pressure from international opinion. Other big powers won't risk their own national interests to confront China in the South China Sea.”