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International relations

Beijing presses ASEAN anew for South China Sea code by 2021

Premier Li touts 'ever stronger' ties with bloc in Trump's absence

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, center, prepares for a photo shoot at the ASEAN-China Summit in Bangkok on Nov. 3.   © Reuters

BANGKOK -- Chinese Premier Li Keqiang on Sunday urged Southeast Asian leaders to wrap up a "code of conduct" for the South China Sea by 2021, after recent flare-ups in the disputed waterway complicated talks on the maritime nonaggression pact.

"We stand ready to work with ASEAN countries within the existing foundation and basis to strive for new progress in the COC, according to the three-year time frame, so as to maintain long-term peace and stability in the South China Sea," Li said in Bangkok, where regional leaders convened for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and East Asia summits.

Beijing and ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam are locked in territorial disputes over the sea. China, which had been previously accused of delaying the pact as it rushed to build islands, changed its tone last year, proposing a conclusion of the talks by 2021.

Chinese and ASEAN diplomats opened a second round of negotiations in Vietnam last month, but a monthslong standoff between Chinese and Vietnamese ships in waters controlled by Hanoi complicated the talks, according to a diplomatic source. Tensions eased last week when the Chinese survey ship left the area, according to reports.

Diplomats have also yet to agree on salient features of the code, such as whether it would be legally binding.

Li said China and ASEAN's stable relations and "ever stronger" ties have help them "cope with instability in other parts of the world," adding that an "ever important landmark is the completion of the first reading of the COC."

A draft chairman's statement from the ASEAN-China Summit "commended" progress toward the code without directly mentioning the recent events that raised tensions, including the standoff between Vietnamese and Chinese vessels in the area known as Vanguard Bank.

In June, a Chinese vessel also rammed and sank a Philippine fishing boat near the disputed Reed Bank area. The Filipino crew were rescued by Vietnamese fishermen.

A summit statement with no reference to these confrontations would be viewed as a diplomatic victory for China, which claims nearly the entire South China Sea, at a gathering where the U.S. is represented by only a lower-level delegation.

In August, the U.S. accused China of blocking Southeast Asian nations' access to $2.5 trillion worth of energy resources in the South China Sea. But U.S. President Donald Trump skipped the region's biggest diplomatic gathering for the second straight year, and sent National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien to meet Asian leaders on his behalf.

Trump's habit of avoiding key regional meetings has cast doubt on Washington's engagement with Southeast Asia, especially now that the president is facing impeachment back home. Vice President Mike Pence represented the Trump administration at last year's Singapore summit, and in 2017, Trump attended the ASEAN Summit in Manila but left early, skipping the East Asia Summit that included China, Japan and Australia.

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