Southeast Asian foreign ministers on Monday called for the speedy completion of a code of conduct to ease tensions in the South China Sea, where four members of the regional bloc have territorial disputes with mainland China, a delegate said.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) ministers “urged senior officials to expedite the completion of the drafting of the code of conduct” as they began their annual meeting in the Vietnamese capital, said the delegate, who asked not to be named.
“It’s an expression of their (ministers’) commitment to complete the process,” said the source.
The code would cover the Spratlys, a chain of islands in the South China Sea claimed in whole or in part by ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, along with non-members mainland China and Taiwan.
Believed to sit on vast oil and natural gas deposits, the chain is seen as a potential flashpoint for armed conflict because all the claimants except Brunei have troops stationed in the area, which also covers strategic shipping lanes and rich fishing grounds.
Completion of the proposed code, which seeks to set rules governing activities in the South China Sea, has been delayed by a lack of consensus among claimant nations on the area to be covered.
Vietnam wants the disputed Paracel islands, which are occupied by mainland China, to be included in the code.
At a meeting of ASEAN senior officials to prepare for this week’s ministerial meetings, the Philippines circulated a new draft of the code which dropped any reference to geographic boundaries in a bid to break the impasse.
Mainland China and Taiwan claim the entire South China Sea on historical grounds.
However, the new draft needs to be studied further by the senior officials in meetings leading to the ASEAN leaders’ summit in Brunei in November, the source said.
The ASEAN ministers are expected to discuss the Spratlys during a meeting with mainland Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan during the ASEAN Regional Forum on security issues here on Wednesday.
“Boundaries are irrelevant because the code is not meant to settle disputes. The code is a confidence-building measure,” the delegate said.
Last week, a mainland Chinese Foreign Ministry official said that Taiwan would not be allowed to join the code of conduct.
“Taiwan’s claims to South China Sea islands are the same as the mainland’s claims,” said the official.”I don’t see there is a separate claim from Taiwan.”