ASEAN, China eye 2022 as new target to conclude talks on South China Sea COC: source

Willard Cheng and Ronron Calunsod, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jun 09 2021 09:45 PM | Updated as of Jun 10 2021 01:45 AM

MANILA (UPDATE) - Amid continuing Chinese incursions in Philippine waters in the South China Sea, Southeast Asian nations and China underscore the need for an "environment conducive" for negotiations on the proposed Code of Conduct in the sea that, according to a diplomatic source on Wednesday, they hope to conclude next year.

Foreign ministers of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China held a special meeting in the latter's metropolis of Chongqing on Monday to mark the 30th anniversary of their' dialogue relations. China's Wang Yi and the Philippines' Teodoro Locsin, Jr. co-chaired the meeting as the Philippines currently serves as country coordinator for ASEAN-China relations.

Reaffirming their "continued commitment to fully and effectively implement the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct (DOC) of Parties in the South China Sea in its entirety" was among the steps they discussed to take, according to the co-chairs' statement released after the gathering.

“We reaffirmed that the DOC is a milestone document that embodies the collective commitment to promote peace, stability, mutual trust and confidence in the region, in accordance with international law, including 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS),” the statement read. 

The co-chairs also noted the importance of a "maintained momentum" on the negotiations on the COC, which began in 2018 and is envisioned to manage tensions in the disputed waters.

They "emphasize the need to maintain and promote an environment conducive to the COC negotiations."

Because of the "disruptive impact of the pandemic on the COC talks," the target of concluding it "has become more flexible" and in fact been moved from this year to next year, according to an ASEAN diplomat who requested anonymity.

"The current goal is to continue the second reading of the COC text and hopefully conclude it this year, and then proceed to the third and final reading next year," the source told ABS-CBN News.

In 2019, at the outset of a summit with ASEAN leaders in Bangkok, Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang said his country was eager to map out the code of conduct with ASEAN by 2021.

At Monday's meeting, the ASEAN and Chinese foreign ministers committed to "strive to expedite the resumption of the textual negotiations of the COC through virtual platforms," the statement said.

This could be done through a "step-by-step resumption, undertaken by several virtual meetings of our officials despite the challenges of the pandemic."

"Physical meetings would remain the primary modality, towards the early conclusion of an effective and substantive COC that is in accordance with international law, including the 1982 UNCLOS," it added.

The COC seeks to upgrade the looser DOC, with ASEAN diplomats hoping to achieve an effective and substantive pact. ASEAN and China completed the first reading of the proposed code in 2018-2019. 

The ministers discussed to "enhance and promote maritime security, uphold the freedom of navigation in and overflight above the South China Sea, exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability, and pursue the peaceful resolution of disputes, in accordance with universally recognised principles of international law, including the 1982 UNCLOS."

China's sweeping claims in the South China Sea has been adjudged as having no legal basis by a UN-backed arbitration court in 2016. The Philippines initiated the arbitration after its bilateral negotiations with China over its incursions beginning 2012 yielded negative results. 

Earlier this year, hundreds of Chinese ships were found inside the exclusive economic zone of Manila, refusing to leave despite repeated demands and protests by Philippine authorities and criticisms by several countries.

In March, the Philippine foreign ministry said China's "continuing infringements" despite "resolute protests" are "contrary" to its "commitments under international law" and the 2002 DOC.

"The Philippines calls on China to faithfully honor its obligations as a State Party to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and to abide by the final and binding 12 July 2016 Award in the South China Sea Arbitration," the ministry said.

Meanwhile, ASEAN and China, according to the co-chair's statement, committed to strengthening practical maritime cooperation to build mutual trust and confidence.

Expanding vaccine cooperation and promoting “equitable access to and accelerate production and distribution of safe, effective, quality and affordable vaccines for all” were also discussed in light of the prevailing pandemic.

These include promoting a “comprehensive, balanced and sustainable recovery,” post-COVID-19 economic and social development, including through the support for the COVID-19 ASEAN Response Fund and ASEAN Comprehensive Recovery Framework.

They also reaffirmed their commitment to multilateralism “founded on the principles of the Charter of the United Nations and based on international law, maintain an open and inclusive regional cooperation framework, support ASEAN Centrality in the evolving regional architecture, uphold multilateralism and jointly respond to regional and global challenges.”

ASEAN groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

- With a report from Kyodo News

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