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International Relations

ASEAN and China create 'single draft' for South China Sea code of conduct

But with no set deadline, source says agreement will take a long time

Singapore foreign minister Vivian Balakrishnan speaks at a media briefing on August 2 in Singapore. (Photo by Kentaro Iwamoto)

SINGAPORE -- The Association of Southeast Asian Nations and China have created a draft document for a code of conduct in the South China Sea that would form the basis for future negotiations, both said Thursday.

This marks a major achievement in ASEAN-China relations that had been shaken by conflict over the body of water for years, they said, although the deadline for the conclusion of the agreement has not been set.

Foreign ministers from ASEAN countries and China held a meeting on Thursday in Singapore on the sidelines of the ASEAN Regional Forum, where the South China Sea issue has been a key sticking point.

The code of conduct is meant to rule out further conflict in the area, which has been claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, China and Taiwan. ASEAN and China started negotiations in March after five years of discussions.

Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, who represents the 10-member bloc, told a news conference that ASEAN members and China "put everything down in a single draft." This "does not mean negotiations are over," he said, but "it is meant to generate a code of conduct that would ensure peace, stability, confidence so that we can continue to make collective progress."

"It is like China and ASEAN countries are building a house together," Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told reporters in a separate briefing. "In the past, there were like 11 designs from the 11 countries. Now we have laid good groundwork for a single design of this house."

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said the relationship between ASEAN and China had entered a "new stage," on the sidelines of the 51st ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting in Singapore on August 2.   © Getty Images

In what was seen as a reference to the U.S., Wang added: "We believe that without any disturbances from the outside, COC (code of conduct) consultations will accelerate fast progress, showing that China and ASEAN have the ability to maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea to arrive at a set of rules that we all will observe." He also said ASEAN-China relations have entered a "new stage."

But the future of the negotiations is still unclear. Balakrishnan did not provide any details of the draft due to "the sensitivity of the negotiation." He also said "it is premature for me to set a deadline" for the end of negotiations.

One ASEAN country source said the draft was "very rough," and it included only the "wishes" of what each of the 11 countries want in each section of the code of conduct. The source said it would take a "long time" to finalize.

Meanwhile, China has continued military activities in the sea. According to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, a think tank that monitors developments in the South China Sea, China has created some 12.9 square kilometers of new land since 2013.

In a joint communique released Thursday after the ASEAN foreign ministers' meeting, which was also held on the day, Southeast Asian ministers repeated the word "concerns" that they used in previous meetings. "We discussed the matters relating to the South China Sea and took note of some concerns of the land reclamations and activities in the area," the statement said.

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