BANGKOK – Attempts to reduce tension in the contested South China Sea reached a milestone on Wednesday (July 31) when Beijing revealed that Asean and China had completed the first reading of the single draft negotiating text for a code of conduct (COC).
“This represents a new and important progress in the COC consultations and marks a critical step towards the goal of completing the consultations within three years’ time,” China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi told his counterparts from Asean, who have gathered this week in Bangkok for the bloc’s annual foreign ministers’ meeting and related dialogues with partners like China.
Based on this common text – which has so far been kept under wraps – the countries now expected to further narrow down differences in positions.
In a press conference later on Wednesday, Mr Wang expressed support for Asean’s recently drafted vision of the Indo-Pacific region – a non-binding document issued in June to articulate Asean’s own perspective on regional cooperation amid the big-power rivalry in its backyard.
It emphasises an inclusive and “rules-based framework” to “help to generate momentum for building strategic trust and win-win cooperation in the region”.
Mr Wang told reporters: “Many of the principles and ideas that are contained in this (Asean) outlook are consistent with China’s views – for example, a commitment to Asean centrality, staying open, inclusive and transparent.”
He said Beijing was ready to work closely with Asean to “actively guide and promote our cooperation” for growth.
China claims almost the entire South China Sea, a strategic waterway which is also claimed in parts by Asean’s Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, as well as Taiwan.
Beijing has resisted subjecting its territorial claims to international tribunals and instead reclaimed and installed military facilities on disputed islands. It chafes at the US navy’s “freedom of navigation” naval operations in these waters, which it regards as external interference.
In its latest defence white paper released last week (July 24), China blamed the United States for destabilising security by stoking strategic competition and intensifying the regional arms race.
For years, Beijing has been working with Asean to draw up a binding code of conduct in the South China Sea.
In the meantime, fierce contests over fish, oil and other resources have erupted at sea.
In June, a Philippines fishing boat anchored off a disputed seamount – believed to hold large quantities of oil and natural gas – sank after it was rammed by a Chinese boat.
Meanwhile, Vietnam and China are currently engaged in a weeks-long standoff near an offshore oil block. While Hanoi has recently extended the operations of an oil platform near the Spratly islands, it has also demanded that China withdraw a survey ship and coastguard vessels that it says have ventured into Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone.
China, meanwhile, is conducting two large-scale military drills in the waters around Taiwan this week in a show of its prowess.
Despite the confrontations, Mr Wang stressed that “the situation in the South China Sea has notably improved” in recent years through joint efforts of Chinese and Asean leaders, and “there has been no problem whatsoever with freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea”.
But “some friction that may crop up from time to time” due to historical maritime disputes, and these should be resolved by countries directly concerned through peaceful means.
While not naming the US, Mr Wang said countries outside the region “should not deliberately amplify such differences or disputes from the past” and try to sow distrust between China and Asean countries.
Meanwhile, Asean and China also launched a programme on Wednesday to support academic exchange. Under the Asean-China Young Leaders Scholarship Programme, Beijing will support young and promising Asean professionals to pursue higher studies in China. Through awards that will cover tuition fees, accommodation, airfare, medical insurance and stipends, Beijing will fund their study for Masters or doctorate degrees, short-term research programmes or training courses in China. The first batch of 100 recipients under this programme will head to China in September for their studies.