But Chairman's statement silent on bloc's preference for legally-binding code
MANILA - The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) underscored "the importance of non-militarization and self-restraint" among claimant parties in the disputed South China Sea days after it agreed to start sea code talks with China.
In a Chairman's statement released Thursday, the ASEAN said claimant parties should avoid engaging in activities "that could further complicate the situation and escalate tensions in the South China Sea."
"We further reaffirmed the need to enhance mutual trust and confidence, emphasized the importance of non-militarization and self-restraint in the conduct of all activities by claimants and all other states," the regional bloc said.
Four ASEAN members - the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam - have overlapping claims with China in the strategic water way where $5 trillion in trade passes annually.
The statement was released two days after the regional bloc and China announced the formal start of negotiations for a sea code aimed at managing tensions in the disputed waters.
The code is envisioned to replace the non-binding Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, which ASEAN and China signed in 2002 but has failed to stop incursions and prevent tensions in the disputed waters.
China has been criticized by the international community for building man-made islands capable of housing troops and weapons in the disputed area amid negotiations for a code of conduct.
It has ignored the Philippines' landmark July 16, 2016 victory before the United Nations arbitral tribunal, which invalidated Beijing's nine-dash line claim.
Days before top Chinese leaders flew to Vietnam for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit, and to the Philippines for the ASEAN meetings, Beijing deployed a massive dredging ship to the South China Sea.
Despite this, the ASEAN Chairman's statement described relations between ASEAN and China as "improving."
It praised the "successful testing" of a cross-country hotline where "maritime emergencies" in the South China Sea may be reported.
"In our view, these are practical measures that could reduce tensions, and the risks of accidents, misunderstandings and miscalculation," it read.
The statement, however, did not mention ASEAN's preference for a legally-binding sea code.
In August, Southeast Asian foreign ministers agreed to push for a legally-binding document while China opted for a version that does not bind parties to compliance.
The Chairman's statement was also silent on the Philippines' 2016 legal victory.
Instead, southeast Asian leaders said claimant parties should "adhere to the peaceful resolution of disputes, in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law and the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)."