JAKARTA - Indonesia said Thursday that the completion of a so-called code of conduct being mapped out by Southeast Asian countries and China to avert clashes in the South China Sea may be delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
"Negotiations on the code of conduct cannot be held virtually, so we will wait until conditions get better to resume them," Jose Tavares, a senior Foreign Ministry official in charge of cooperation among the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, told a press conference.
Tavares said that before the COVID-19 pandemic, ASEAN and China had scheduled negotiations on the issue in Brunei in February, in the Philippines in May, in Indonesia in August and in China in October, focusing on completion of the second reading of the code of conduct.
The first reading was completed last year.
"The completion of the second reading is now in question because we don't know when the pandemic will end to enable us resuming negotiations," Tavares said.
Last year, at the outset of a summit with ASEAN leaders in Bangkok, Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang said his country is eager to map out the code of conduct with ASEAN by 2021.
"We must stay optimistic because there have been commitments and political will both from ASEAN and China," Tavares said.
"But because we have to deal with this force majeur," he said, referring to extraordinary circumstances beyond control of the parties, "the completion (of the code of conduct) may be delayed."
China claims sovereignty over almost the South China Sea, home to some of the world's busiest sea lanes. It has rapidly built artificial islands with military infrastructure, shifting the territorial status quo in its favor.
A 2016 ruling by a U.N.-backed court in The Hague invalidated China’s sweeping claims, saying its history-based nine-dash line argument has no basis under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea of which it is a signatory. Beijing rejects the decision.
As it competes with the United States for influence in the region, China wants the code of conduct to include a provision that observers view as intended to curb U.S. naval operations in the waters.
A code of conduct has long been discussed, with China and the ASEAN members agreeing in 2002 on a loose set of guidelines known as the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, which exhorted all parties "to exercise self-restraint" with regard to "activities that would complicate or escalate disputes."
ASEAN groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
==Kyodo, with ABS-CBN News