China and Asean agree to exercise self-restraint in South China Sea, hours after Beijing dodges direct criticism

Association of Southeast Asian Nations had been split on their response to the international court ruling

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 July, 2016, 2:49pm
UPDATED : Monday, 25 July, 2016, 9:15pm

China dodged direct criticism over its activities in the South China Sea in a joint statement issued by Asean on Monday, with Beijing’s top envoy calling for a new page to be turned following an international court ruling.

The bloc’s statement covered a range of issues and included a section on the contested waters. It expressed serious concern over land reclamations and “escalations of activities”, but did not directly challenge Beijing nor mention the ruling.

Multimedia special: 70 years of construction, conflict and combat on the South China Sea

Hours later, China and Asean released a second joint statement saying both sides agreed to exercise self-restraint over activities that would “complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability”.

This included avoiding “action of inhabiting .. the presently uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals, cays, and other features”, while handling differences in a “constructive manner”.

Both sides would explore or cooperate in navigation safety, search and rescue, marine scientific research, environmental protection and fighting transnational crime at sea, it said.

Foreign ministers of members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations as well as the United States, Japan and South Korea are meeting in Vientiane in Laos.

The bloc was earlier deadlocked over the language of the initial statement, and whether it should mention the ruling handed down by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague on July 12. The court sided with the Philippines, which filed the case, and found China’s claims to the contested waters were invalid.

The Philippines and Vietnam wanted the meeting’s communique to refer to the ruling and the need to respect international law, Asean diplomats said. But Cambodia opposed the move, and Beijing has publicly thanked it for its support.

Asean split on joint response to South China Sea row

In the end, the watered-down release said actions had “eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region”.

Speaking to the press after a meeting of top envoys, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said the statement “was not against China”. He called for a lowering of tensions in the region and said relations between Beijing and the bloc should not be defined by maritime issues.

He described the atmosphere at the foreign ministers’ meeting in the morning as friendly. The envoys spent most of the time discussing cooperation and only one country mentioned the ruling, Wang said. He repeated Beijing’s line the tribunal ruling was “deeply flawed” and said this “page has to be turned over”.

Wang said the land reclamation activities mentioned was not a reference to China. “China does not have land reclamations [in the South China Sea] now,” he said. “As for which countries have land reclamation now, you will have to find out for yourself. I do not wish to name names,” he said.

The Asean statement called for

for non-militarisation of the activities in the disputed waters and highlighted the importance of freedom of navigation.

It also called for more frequent meetings between the China and the Asean to speed up adoption of a code of conduct in the waters. Discussions about a binding code would be finalised by the first half of next year, Wang said.

Wang met his North Korean counterpart Ri Yong-ho on the sidelines of the summit and was later on Monday expected to meet Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida.

US State Secretary John Kerry arrived in Laos on Monday. Wang and Kerry are meeting Monday evening.