KUALA LUMPUR: Senior Asean and Chinese officials are meeting in China this week to finalise the draft framework for the Code of Conduct (COC) in the contested South China Sea.
The two-day meeting in Guiyang starts tomorrow with the joint working group (JWG) on the COC sitting down to finalise the draft framework, before submitting it to senior officials who will meet on Thursday.
An official said a new phase of actual work, that is the negotiation to establish a binding COC, will begin once the draft framework is adopted.
“Senior officials will submit the draft framework to the foreign ministers who are expected to endorse it when they meet for the annual Asean Foreign Ministers Meeting in Manila in August,” said an official.
This is the third meeting of the JWG this year after Bali and Siem Reap in February and March.
Last year, the JWG met three times – in the Philippines, Vietnam and China.
The proposed COC seeks to advance a 2002 Declaration of Conduct (DOC) of Parties in the South China Sea, which commits to following the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), ensuring freedom of navigation and overflight, and refraining from the action of inhabiting the presently uninhabited island, reefs, shoals, cays and other features.
The area, which has rich fishing grounds, along with oil and gas deposits, is claimed by four Asean countries – Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. China and Taiwan are the two non-Asean claimant countries.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in March the first draft has been completed and both China and Asean countries were satisfied with the progress, adding that tensions in the maritime area had distinctly dropped.
Some officials have described the draft as a public relations exercise on China’s part as Beijing has been rather aggressive in reclaiming the area by building airstrips and other facilities for military forces.
“If you look at what Asean has in mind, this draft is basically nothing.
“This is just another hurdle, putting in more conditions on how Asean countries should be behaving in the area,” an Asean official said.
“If possible, they want us to toe their line and not repeat what the Philippines did by going to The Hague,” said the official, referring to the international arbitral tribunal at The Hague ruling last year that China has no historic rights claim to resources within the South China Sea in areas also claimed by the Philippines.
At the 30th Asean Summit in Manila recently, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak had reiterated that the South China Sea was a sensitive issue but reminded all parties involved not to carry out any activities that could escalate tension and militarise the area.
“We understand this is sensitive and requires all parties to ensure they respect international laws. That has always been our position,” he said.
It is understood that a joint statement will be issued at the end of the meeting in Guiyang.