China and Asean agree on guidelines to expedite South China Sea negotiations

The guidelines were adopted during a meeting between Asean foreign ministers and China’s top diplomat Wang Yi in Jakarta on July 13, 2023.

Arlina Arshad and Lim Min Zhang

Arlina Arshad and Lim Min Zhang

The Straits Times


(From left) Vietnamese Foreign Minister Bui Thanh Son, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi and Malaysian Foreign Minister Zambry Abdul Kadir at a group photo session on July 13, 2023. PHOTO: AFP

July 14, 2023

JAKARTA – China and South-east Asian countries have agreed on a set of guidelines to speed up negotiations for a code of conduct (COC) in the disputed South China Sea.

The guidelines were adopted during a meeting between Asean foreign ministers and China’s top diplomat Wang Yi in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta on Thursday.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi hailed the development as an important milestone and an achievement that “should continue to build positive momentum” on a partnership that advances inclusivity and openness, respects international law, and promotes dialogue and collaboration.

“We want China to be a staunch Asean partner in maintaining an open and inclusive regional architecture. Only through this can we attain win-win cooperation for the sake of common peace, stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific,” she said during Thursday’s session of the four-day Asean Foreign Ministers’ Meeting and related meetings, which began on Tuesday.

On the progress made towards realising a rulebook for the South China Sea, Mr Wang said: “China welcomes the successful conclusion of the second reading of the Code of Conduct for the South China Sea, and supports all parties in accelerating the formation of the guidelines, with the hope that the guidelines will continue playing a constructive role.”

Asean countries and China have been trying for years to formulate a legally binding COC to govern the South China Sea, one of the world’s busiest waterways that is also the site of overlapping claims by China, Taiwan, and four Asean states – Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.

The parties disagree on a number of issues, including military actions and fishing activities in the area.

A compromise was reached in 2002 when Beijing and the 10-nation bloc signed the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties (DOC), an informal agreement that commits both sides to adhere to the principles of international law, respect freedom of navigation and resolve conflicts peacefully.

The DOC was to pave the way for a COC, a binding framework for dispute resolution.

The guidelines adopted on Thursday – the Guidelines for Accelerating the Early Conclusion of an Effective and Substantive COC – are aimed at speeding up the COC negotiation process.

Details, however, were not provided.

Mr Wang, who is China’s most senior foreign policy official, told the foreign ministers that “China actively participates in and firmly supports a regional cooperation framework with Asean at the core” and “adheres to a concept of inclusivity, rejects interference, and continues development”.

Besides the South China Sea issue, Ms Retno also requested China’s support for the concrete implementation of the Asean Outlook on the Indo-Pacific.

The Indonesia-led initiative signed by Asean leaders in 2019 lays out the grouping’s common position on regional cooperation, security and prosperity, as well as its stance on not taking sides with any major powers competing for influence in the region.

Mr Wang said China and Asean are in “active discussions” over a third version of a free trade agreement and have pushed the full implementation of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a trade deal involving 15 Asia-Pacific countries, including China.

China and Asean are each other’s largest trading partner, with trade between them reaching US$975 billion (S$1.3 trillion) in 2022.

China is also the fourth-largest source of foreign direct investment in Asean, which touched US$13.8 billion in 2021.

Mr Wang said China and Asean have actively promoted mutually beneficial cooperation, and “successfully walked the correct path of long-term common development and prosperity” in the past two decades.

Amid the current geopolitical situation, which is “complex and undergoing profound changes”, he underlined the importance of creating a strategic environment that is conducive to promoting each other’s development as well as long-term stability.

He said: “China is willing to work with Asean to cherish the fruits of what we have achieved, hold on to the correct direction of the relationship’s development, and continually deepen the strategic partnership.”

After the meetings with Asean dignitaries, Mr Wang and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken held a longer-than-expected meeting that lasted over 1½ hours late on Thursday.

“The meeting was part of ongoing efforts to maintain open channels of communication to clarify US interests across a wide range of issues and to responsibly manage competition by reducing the risk of misperception and miscalculation,” US State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said afterwards.

The discussions were “candid and constructive”, he added.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (right) with China’s top diplomat Wang Yi during their bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Jakarta on July 13, 2023. PHOTO: AFP

Though a smiling Mr Blinken remarked to Mr Wang, “Director, good to see you”, he also issued a warning of consequences over a hacking attack of US government websites this week, which Microsoft blamed on China.

The attack threatens to undermine a recent thaw in chilly ties between Washington and Beijing.

Mr Blinken “made clear that any action that targets US government, US companies, American citizens is of deep concern to us and that we will take appropriate action to hold those responsible accountable”, a US official said after the meeting.

The two sides also discussed Beijing’s military activities in the South China Sea, just days after the largest sortie of Chinese warplanes in three months flew into sensitive areas near Taiwan.

A possible call between US President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping was not discussed in detail.

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