China and Asean reach deal on uninhabited South China Sea islands
Southeast Asian bloc expresses concerns about land reclamation but steers clear of challenging Beijing and international tribunal’s ruling
China and Asean members agreed on Monday to avoid basing people on now-uninhabited islands and reefs in the disputed South China Sea, as the bloc made its first official joint statement on the waters since an international tribunal ruling this month.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ joint communique expressed serious concerns over land reclamation and “escalations of activities in the area”, but did not directly challenge China nor mention the ruling.
China and Asean then released a separate joint statement on implementing the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea.
The statement said China and Asean agreed to refrain from “action of inhabiting on the presently uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals, cays, and other features and to handle their differences in a constructive manner”.
It also underlined their pledge to respect freedom of navigation and to peacefully solve territorial disputes through negotiation in accordance with international laws, including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
The Asean statement came after days of deadlock among senior Asean diplomats at a series of meetings in Vientiane, during which China’s close ally Cambodia was blamed for opposing references to the South China Sea in the joint statement.
An Asean diplomat said the statement was drafted with Asean’s common interest in mind, but “not the interest of certain countries”.
In a meeting late yesterday with Asean foreign ministers, US Secretary of State John Kerry made no direct mention of the South China Sea tensions between China and its smaller neighbours.
But he did praise Asean generally for speaking up for “a rules-based international system that protects the rights of all nations whether big or small”, the Associated Press reported.
In a meeting with his Asean counterparts, Foreign Minister Wang Yi called for a new page to be turned after the ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.
China, which refused to take part in the arbitration or implement the tribunal’s ruling, has insisted the disputes will not affect its relations with Asean.
Wang said his meeting with Asean foreign ministers was mostly about cooperation. “Only one country mentioned the arbitration [on the South China Sea],” he said.
China and Asean would continue to push for the implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. Discussions about a binding code of conduct would be finalised by the first half of next year, he said.
Wang warned again against “interference from outside countries” and efforts to “divide relations between China and Asean”, a veiled reference to the United States and Japan. “This page has to be turned over … The hype has to cool down,” he said.
A Chinese diplomat said Beijing had been pushing for cooperation with Asean to export excess production capacity to countries in the region.
Jinan University Southeast Asian studies expert Zhang Mingliang said Asean struck a careful balance in its response to the South China Sea disputes.
“Asean has been very cautious on the issue. It has to safeguard its interests while at the same time avoid angering China,” he said.
Zhang said the bloc had learned to manage differences since the 2012 meetings in Cambodia, when Asean officials failed to issue a joint statement for the first time due to clashes over the South China Sea.
He had doubts that China and Asean could agree on the code of conduct by the first half of 2017 due to the grave differences between China and Asean countries.
“But the two sides can start their cooperation in less sensitive areas such as fisheries and joint maritime rescue efforts,” Zhang said.
Additional reporting by Wendy Wu