Singapore's prime minister says a South China Sea code of conduct will take time

Leaders watch as an Indigenous Australian boy performs after they posed for the family photo during the 50th Asean-Australia Special Summit in Melbourne on March 5, 2024. - AFP

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP): South-East Asian countries’ quest to reach agreement with China on a code of conduct in the contested South China Sea will take time, with difficult issues yet to be resolved despite recent efforts to accelerate the process, Singapore’s prime minister said Tuesday at a regional summit.

China’s increasing military assertiveness in the busy waterway toward neighbors with competing territorial claims has been high on the agenda of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit. The three-day summit, which is being hosted in Melbourne to mark 50 years since Australia became ASEAN’s first external partner, ends Wednesday.

Leaders of the 10-nation bloc hope a code of conduct with China would be key to reducing the risk of naval confrontations.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said a first draft of the code had been written, but the final document would take time.

"They have reached a point, I think, of a first complete read-through of the code of conduct, but to negotiate and to settle the code, I believe would take some time,” Lee told reporters.

"The issues are not easy to resolve and, really, negotiating of a code of conduct inevitably raises issues of what the ultimate outcomes are going to be, and therefore, because the ultimate answers are difficult, so too negotiating the code will take quite some time,” Lee said.

In the latest dangerous incident, Chinese coast guard ships blocked Philippine vessels off a disputed South China Sea shoal on Tuesday, causing a minor collision, the Philippine coast guard said.

Philippine security officials have accused the Chinese coast guard and suspected militia ships of blocking Philippine vessels and using water cannons and a military-grade laser that temporarily blinded some Filipino crewmen in a series of high-seas hostilities last year.

Leaders agreed at an ASEAN summit in Indonesia last September to accelerate the negotiation process with a goal of finalizing a code within three years. That summit was joined by U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, Chinese Prime Minister Li Qiang and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

ASEAN expects the code will reflect international norms, principles and rules, refer to international law, and aim to achieve a "stable, safe and peaceful South China Sea,” according to documents released by Indonesia's Foreign Ministry.

Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. says the dispute's legal status was made clear by the Philippines’ victory over China in a 2016 arbitration ruling in The Hague, Netherlands, that invalidated Beijing’s vast territorial claims in the South China Sea. China did not accept the ruling.

"It is unfortunate that despite the clarity provided by international law, provocative, unilateral and illegal actions continue to infringe upon our sovereignty, our sovereign rights and jurisdictions,” Marcos said Monday.

Australia and the Philippines have urged regional neighbors to stand together more strongly in upholding the rule of law in the South China Sea, where China has constructed garrisons on several artificial islands to fortify its claims.

Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, who has resisted pressure to take a side in the regional power struggle, said on Monday, "We do not have a problem with China.”

Nine ASEAN leaders and East Timorese Prime Minister Xanana Gusmão were officially welcomed to the summit on Tuesday with a traditional Indigenous smoking ceremony that involves burning leaves.

ASEAN has agreed in principle to admit East Timor and has granted it observer status. Myanmar, which is the 10th ASEAN nation, was denied political representation at the meeting over its failure to stem violence since a military junta seized control in 2021.

Gusmão told reporters on Tuesday he wanted to see ASEAN do more to restore peace and democracy in Myanmar. - AP

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