May 19, 2017 4:00 am JST

Beijing, ASEAN take step toward rules for South China Sea

Agreed-to framework still leaves key details up in the air

OKI NAGAI, Nikkei staff writer

Senior officials from China and ASEAN countries met in the Chinese city of Guiyang.

GUIYANG, China -- The Chinese government and ASEAN members agreed here Thursday on a framework for a code of conduct in the South China Sea, though without deciding its start date or legal status, an internal document obtained by The Nikkei shows.

The countries issued a declaration in 2002 on their commitment to prevent conflict in the waters. But that document has no legal force, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations is negotiating with China for a binding code of conduct.

This marked the 14th senior officials' meeting on the issue. China and ASEAN had planned to finalize a framework sometime in midyear but decided not to publish the new document at this time.

Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin skirted around the details when talking to reporters after the meeting. Whether the framework should be binding will be discussed by the countries later, he said. Asked whether the new code could be adopted within the next five years, Liu responded only that efforts will continue toward reaching an agreement quickly.

The countries will create a framework based on a set of rules and urge maritime cooperation by related parties, according to the document. This was likely a compromise reached by ASEAN, which wants a legally binding code, and China, which opposes the idea. Other listed goals include securing freedom of navigation and flight, as well as creating the conditions for the peaceful resolution of conflicts.

While the document outlines some basic principles all parties are expected to support, it shies away from more contentious issues. Beijing may simply be trying to signal that progress is being made on the South China Sea, given its stance that disputes in the waters should be addressed directly by the parties involved.

Negotiations on the code of conduct are expected to take some time. Beijing has been accused of stalling in the past and will most likely continue militarizing in the South China Sea until a final agreement is reached.

Although the Philippines has conflicting claims with China in the waters, President Rodrigo Duterte has effectively put the dispute on the back burner to secure greater economic cooperation from Beijing.

Even the U.S., a strong supporter of countries locked in maritime disputes with the Chinese, is pulling away amid pressing concerns over the North Korean nuclear and missile threat. It has not conducted any freedom-of-navigation operations, or sail-bys using warships, in the South China Sea this year, making it all the more difficult for ASEAN to stand up to Beijing.

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