China has pushed for a breakthrough in a South China Sea code of conduct and offered a continued supply of Covid-19 vaccines for Asean countries, in the lead-up to a summit meeting this month.
In talks in Beijing on Sunday with top diplomats from the 10 member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said the summit to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Beijing becoming an Asean “dialogue partner” would be a milestone.
“This summit will be a meaningful milestone and will set a direction and plan for the next 30 years of our relationship,” Wang said.
The summit is expected to take place virtually this month between Chinese President Xi Jinping and top leaders from Asean countries.
Regional observers said a key issue would be whether all members agreed to China’s bid to upgrade relations with Asean to a comprehensive strategic partnership, an idea Wang unveiled in June.
Wang was quoted in an official statement following the meeting saying China wished to use the opportunity with Asean countries to overcome pandemic challenges, aid economic recovery and growth and to defend economic globalisation as well as regional stability, integration and prosperity.
He said China also sought to “put multilateralism and opening up of the region into practice and make new steps towards building a closer community of shared future between China and Asean”.
Wang said China would continue to supply Asean countries with vaccines until the pandemic was overcome.
Chinese Vice-President Wang Qishan said in September that Southeast Asia was a priority for China’s vaccine distribution programme and that China had delivered nearly 200 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines to Asean members.
Wang also attempted to address a sore point in the relationship between China and Asean – overlapping claims over the South China Sea – by repeating his wish to push forward negotiations on a new code of conduct.
“China and Asean countries have put the South China Sea problem in an appropriate position, and pushed for deepening of cooperation and development,” he said, noting that next year would be the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. The declaration is a non-binding code of conduct that appears to have done little to resolve conflicts stemming from overlapping claims between China and at least four Asean countries.
“[China wishes] we can both use this opportunity to speed up negotiations regarding the code of conduct in the South China Sea,” Wang said.
The overlapping claims of mainland China, Taiwan and Asean members Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei have been unresolved for decades. China and Asean been holding talks for years to draft a code of conduct to avoid conflicts in the disputed waters.
While a single code of conduct draft was made in 2018 at the 51st Asean-China foreign ministers’ meeting in Singapore, little progress has been made as both sides are understood to be unable to find common ground or a mechanism to ensure the code is effectively implemented.
The Southeast Asian countries have said that China’s vast nine-dash line claim contravenes their rights under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), to which Beijing is a party.