China, ASEAN approve sea code

By Cao Siqi Source:Global Times Published: 2017/8/6 23:23:40 Last Updated: 2017/8/7 8:24:06

Important achievement in jointly managing differences: experts

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi is surrounded by journalists at the 50th ASEAN Foreign Ministers' Meeting and its dialogue partners, in Manila, Philippines on Sunday. Photo: AP

The approval of the framework of the Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea marks an important achievement for China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in jointly managing their differences and easing tensions in the disputed waters, Chinese experts said.

Foreign ministers from ASEAN and China approved the framework, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said on Sunday.

The framework, which was negotiated by China and ASEAN, will help both sides move forward in negotiating an effective code of conduct, the Xinhua News Agency reported Saturday, quoting Robespierre Bolivar, Philippine foreign affairs department spokesman.

Bolivar had earlier said the framework is one of the major outcome documents of the week-long ASEAN ministerial meetings that began on Saturday.

Compared to the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) signed in 2002, the framework's approval is a substantial step toward making the declaration binding, Zhu Feng, an international relations professor at Nanjing University, told the Global Times, adding that this is an important achievement of China and ASEAN in the last 15 years.

The framework was agreed upon in May during a senior officials' meeting on the implementation of the DOC in Guiyang, Southwest China's Guizhou Province. Under the agreement, all parties are obliged to reach a final COC to build a South China Sea of peace, friendship and cooperation.

Code's significance

However, some overseas media have raised questions about the COC's practical significance, quoting experts as saying that the non-legally binding document would be a political agreement much like the DOC, and is not a breakthrough between China and ASEAN on South China Sea disputes.

"The COC was a pivotal milestone for further talks on South China Sea disputes. In the future, how to turn it into a binding international law will be discussed," Zhu said.

What's more important is that the COC highlights the significance and feasibility of China's "dual-track approach," which means that South China Sea disputes should be addressed through negotiations and consultations among the countries directly concerned, and China and ASEAN countries should work together to safeguard peace and stability in the South China Sea, Zhu added.

Echoing Zhu, Zhang Yuquan, an expert on South China Sea studies at the School of International Relations of Sun Yat-sen University, said ties between China and the Philippines have improved in recent years, which have laid the foundation for the COC's approval. "This is a huge step forward and its practical significance will surface in the near future."

However, Southeast Asian foreign ministers failed to issue a communiqué at the end of Saturday's meeting. Bolivar gave no reason for the delay and said the statement would instead be released at the end of a series of regional events hosted by Manila in the next few days, Reuters reported.

Zhang said that South China Sea disputes are very complicated, and involve several interest groups. Therefore, it is difficult to arrive at a consensus on how to refer to the disputes. But Zhang added he remains optimistic about the upcoming communiqué as Southeast Asian countries have realized that resorting to outside forces does no good to regional peace and development.

Since 2016, the related parties have agreed to set up a senior diplomat hotline to cope with maritime emergencies and apply the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea in the South China Sea, which would help cement trust and avoid unexpected issues.

Meantime, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is traveling to the Philippines, Thailand and Malaysia from Sunday to Thursday, Reuters reported. Tillerson will participate in meetings in Manila and discuss the "denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, maritime security, and counterterrorism."

"It is a good reminder to the US that its interests cannot replace other countries' interests nor can it manipulate others. The approval will remind the US that it should view South China Sea issues from a practical perspective," Zhu said.

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