Foreign ministers from Asean and China will hold a special meeting to hasten progress on a code of conduct in the disputed South China Sea, Indonesia’s foreign minister said on Thursday.
The meeting was proposed by China and all countries within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) have agreed to participate, Marty Natalegawa told reporters at a meeting of Asean foreign ministers in Brunei.
The agreement is potentially significant as China has insisted on handling territorial disputes bilaterally with individual countries, while Asean wants to speak as a group, a disconnect blamed for hindering progress on a code.
Although no date has been set, Natalegawa said the planned meeting underscored the importance of making “progress on the code of conduct and to maintain a positive atmosphere in the South China Sea”.
“About where and when and how, I think that’s something that needs to be worked out,” he added, of the meeting’s details.
Videographic: A guide to the South China Sea islands dispute
Simmering tensions over competing claims to the sea, which is rich in oil and gas deposits, have reached boiling point in the past two years, with the Philippines and Vietnam accusing China of increasingly aggressive actions.
China claims nearly all of the sea, an important waterway for world trade, while Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also have claims in the area.
Brunei, the tiny, oil-rich sultanate which chairs the 10-nation Asean bloc this year, has said it is keen to conclude a code of conduct under its watch.
China and Asean signed a broad declaration in 2002 pledging the parties would handle disputes peacefully and not take actions that threaten peace and stability, but efforts toward a legally binding code of conduct have floundered.
At the foreign ministers’ meeting, Asean renewed calls for restraint “in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes”, a statement by Brunei’s government said.
But Natalegawa said Asean’s own self-restraint is tested by “unilateral action to try to change (the) situation” in the body of water, referring to China, and adding, “Enough is enough”.
The meeting in Brunei was convened to prepare for an April 24-25 summit of Asean countries in which the sea issue is expected to figure prominently.
The sea dispute led to unprecedented infighting at an Asean foreign ministers’ meeting in Phnom Penh last July, which ended for the first time in the bloc’s 45-year history without a joint communique.
As chair at the time, Cambodia – a close China ally – was accused of resisting efforts by the Philippines and Vietnam to take a more aggressive position against the Chinese.