MANILA - China is "temporizing" talks to craft a legally binding regional code of conduct aimed at reducing territorial and maritime conflicts in the South China Sea, an ASEAN diplomat said Friday.
The diplomat, who requested anonymity, said in an interview that China has indicated it is not yet ready to negotiate with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
"China is temporizing," the diplomat said. "ASEAN is ready but China is not. China says it is not yet in a position to make a commitment."
According to the diplomat, China wants an eminent persons group to draft the "key elements" of the proposed multilateral code.
"China apparently wants to start from a clean slate. But the Philippines rejects that. It's a waste of time," said the diplomat. "Those proposals I think are their way of delaying things."
"Given their aggressive actions in the South China Sea, of course China doesn't want to tie its hands. The code of conduct will tie its hands."
"ASEAN has done its part," said the diplomat, adding that ASEAN senior officials have already identified the "key elements" that will guide the 10-member association in negotiating with China.
Moreover, the diplomat said ASEAN has even finished consolidating its early draft. Indonesia circulated the so-called "zero draft" to ASEAN foreign ministers in September on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York.
"Now it's up to China to also come up with its own main elements because when we formally sit down, we will present our position to them."
"We are waiting for China to indicate the date of the convening of the senior officials to draft the code. However, China is not rushing into it," the diplomat said.
ASEAN wants to start the negotiations "at the earliest opportunity," the diplomat said.
"We want the early convening of the negotiations. We are prepared to sit down with them," the diplomat said. "The ball is in their court."
ASEAN agreed in July to begin formal talks on a proposed code that will govern the behavior of claimants in the Spratly Islands, a widely scattered group of islets, cays, reefs, rocky outcrops, shoals and banks in the South China Sea.
The Spratlys are claimed in whole by China, Taiwan and Vietnam, and in part by Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines.
Of the six claimants, four -- Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam -- are ASEAN members. ASEAN also includes Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, Singapore and Thailand.
Aside from the Spratlys, other contested areas in the South China Sea also include the Paracel Islands, over which the navies of China and Vietnam have come to blows in the past, and Scarborough Shoal, an outcrop north of the Spratlys that is hotly disputed between China and the Philippines.
ASEAN's proposed "key elements" of a regional code of conduct in the South China Sea between the ASEAN member states and China basically call on claimants to resolve the territorial disputes peacefully and exercise self-restraint.
According to ASEAN documents, ASEAN wants the code to encourage the claimants to work together to clarify the territorial and maritime disputes in accordance with international law, including the 1982 U.N. Convention of the Law of the Sea, to pave the way toward their full resolution in a peaceful manner.
It also wants claimants to commit in the code to respect freedom of navigation and overflight in the disputed sea.
Furthermore, ASEAN wants the claimants to respect the exclusive economic zones and coastal shelves of coastal states, and carry out cooperative activities to promote peace and prevent disputes from developing into conflicts.
In 2002, ASEAN and China signed a declaration calling for adoption of a code of conduct that would set out "norms, rules and procedures to govern the conduct of parties, to promote mutual trust, confidence and cooperation in the South China Sea."