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South China Sea

ASEAN defense ministers urge quick work on South China Sea code

Tuesday's talks to be followed by broader meeting with US, China and others

ASEAN defense ministers attend a virtual meeting on June 15. (Image courtesy of Brunei's Defense Ministry)

SINGAPORE -- Defense ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations on Tuesday called for the early conclusion of a code of conduct for the South China Sea, as tensions rise in the region.

The ministers gathered online for a meeting hosted by Brunei, this year's ASEAN chair. The 10-member bloc will also hold an expanded discussion on Wednesday with counterparts from eight key countries, including China, the U.S., Japan and India.

Amid frosty ties between Beijing and Washington, the event marks an opportunity for the two powers and other players to keep the lines of communication open.

In a declaration released by Singapore after Tuesday's session, the ASEAN ministers emphasized "the need to maintain and promote an environment conducive to the early conclusion of an effective and substantive COC in accordance with international law," referring to the maritime code of conduct.

China has overlapping claims with several Southeast Asian countries in the sea. At a foreign ministers meeting last week, ASEAN and China agreed to expedite the resumption of negotiations on the code, which were halted by the pandemic.

The South China Sea has been a key subject at past ASEAN defense ministers meetings as well. The latest document reiterated that the countries are committed to "the maintenance and promotion of peace, security, stability, safety and freedom of navigation in and overflight above the South China Sea."

They also called for "self-restraint in the conduct of activities" and urged parties to "avoid actions that could complicate or escalate the situation," without naming a specific country.

Brunei, in a separate news release, noted that the ASEAN defense ministers held an informal meeting with their Chinese counterpart on the same day. According to Singapore's Defense Ministry, Chinese State Councilor and Minister of National Defense Gen. Wei Fenghe reaffirmed China's commitment to strengthening ASEAN-China cooperation in areas such as think-tank exchanges and counterterrorism.

Tensions in the South China Sea have intensified in recent weeks. Malaysia earlier this month scrambled jets to intercept Chinese aircraft it accused of breaching its airspace. The Philippines has protested the persistent presence of Chinese vessels in its economic zone. Vietnam expanded its maritime forces. Even Indonesia, which does not have a direct dispute with China, has moved to bolster its navy.

Late on Monday, the Philippines said President Rodrigo Duterte was delaying the termination of its Visiting Forces Agreement with the U.S. for another six months, putting off the end of the key defense pact for a third time.

The maritime friction is only one factor in a challenging period for ASEAN.

Many member countries are still grappling with the pandemic. Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines continue to report thousands of new cases a day, while vaccinations remain an uphill battle. In addition, the bloc has been under pressure to resolve the violent crisis in Myanmar, after the Feb. 1 coup.

While asserting itself in the South China Sea, China -- which has recovered quickly from COVID-19 -- has also sought to shore up ties with ASEAN states by promising more vaccine aid.

Beijing's strategy in Southeast Asia is likely to be scrutinized on Wednesday when the ASEAN ministers meet their eight partners, which also include Australia, New Zealand, South Korea and Russia. The meeting comes just days after the Group of Seven summit, where countering China was a major theme.

"We remain seriously concerned about the situation in the East and South China Seas and strongly oppose any unilateral attempts to change the status quo and increase tensions," the G-7 communique said.

U.S. President Joe Biden has emphasized security-oriented alliances in the Indo-Pacific region. His administration has positioned the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad -- a loose grouping with Australia, India and Japan -- front and center.

For Washington, the ASEAN meeting will be another chance to seek collaboration and curb China's influence.

Officially called the ASEAN Defense Ministers' Meeting Plus, the expanded discussions started in 2010 as a means of promoting dialogue and cooperation. Any statement that comes out of the meeting will be closely watched.

At the last meeting in December, the 18 countries adopted a joint declaration that stressed "the importance of freedom, openness, inclusiveness and respect for international law." This was seen as a veiled comment on the South China Sea issues.

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