We need ocean code of conduct, Yudhoyono says

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 July, 2011, 12:00am


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Indonesian President Dr Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono yesterday demanded urgent action to create a binding code of conduct to govern behaviour in the South China Sea, warning that China and Southeast Asia had to send a 'strong signal' to the world.

In unusually frank remarks to open five days of talks on the Indonesian island of Bali between Asean countries and their regional partners, Yudhoyono described talks now under way over implementation guidelines for the code as 'long overdue'.

'Things do not necessarily have to be this slow,' Yudhoyono said at the start of talks that will include China, the US, Japan and Russia. 'We need to send a strong signal to the world that the future of the South China Sea is a predictable, manageable and optimistic one.'

His statement came as Asean's 10 foreign ministers signed off on their annual communique, expressing 'serious concern' at recent incidents in the South China Sea.

'We stressed the importance of maintaining peace and stability in the South China Sea, the continued exercise of self-restraint by all parties concerned and the promotion of confidence-building measures in this area,' the ministers wrote last night.

It is more strongly worded than one produced last year, apparently reflecting protests from two Asean members - the Philippines and Vietnam - over a string of recent incidents involving Chinese ships in disputed waters. Both nations are exploring for oil over Chinese objections.

The document also stresses the importance of a continuing constructive dialogue with China.

Senior officials from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations will today meet Chinese counterparts to discuss the latest draft of the guidelines. Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi is due to meet his Asean counterparts tomorrow on a range of issues, including the South China Sea.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said internal Asean discussions had been 'extremely candid and extremely frank'. But he was uncertain the guidelines could be completed at this meeting. The pressure is mounting following concerns in some quarters that the landmark 2002 declaration between Asean and China on the South China Sea is effectively a 'dead letter'.

That document - hailed at the time of its signing - demands that states resolve differences through peaceful means and exercise restraint until the broader territorial disputes can be solved. They are also supposed to explore a range of co-operative efforts to help forge peace, as well as working towards a legally binding code of conduct.

'We need to finalise those long overdue guidelines because we need to get moving to the next phase,' Yudhoyono said.

While Asean countries are discussing the shape of a future code, negotiations over the guidelines with China remain highly sensitive, highlighting key differences.

China has long insisted that it will only settle specific territorial issues with individual claimants one-to-one, while Asean wants to find a regional settlement. China has a historic claim to virtually the entire South China Sea, expressed through its controversial nine-dotted line that overlaps several Asean states' exclusive economic zones.

China had successfully kept South China Sea issues from dominating Asean's annual regional forum on security in the past, but last year faced a diplomatic ambush in Hanoi led by the US and Vietnam.

US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton surprised many Chinese scholars and analysts by saying then that Washington had a 'national interest' in easing South China Sea tensions and ensuring freedom of navigation.

Chinese diplomats and scholars insist that Beijing has never sought to limit freedom of navigation in the South China Sea but objects to US military surveillance near its coast.