Talks on South China Sea code of conduct should be accelerated, Asean defence ministers say
Call comes as Beijing announces latest air force drill over disputed waters, but Singapore says it is ‘unrealistic’ to expect consensus to be reached this year
Defence ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations said in Singapore on Wednesday they wanted to expedite negotiations on a code of conduct for the South China Sea and another for unexpected encounters in the air over the disputed waterway.
The call came shortly before China’s air force announced that its Su-35 fighter jets had recently taken part in a combat patrol over the sea.
The statement did not say exactly when the exercise took place but said it was part of the air force’s ongoing blue-water training.
China has intensified its air and naval drills in the South China Sea in recent months, triggering concerns among its neighbours in the region. In November, H-6K bombers and fighter jets from China’s air force flew through the Bashi Channel between Taiwan and the Philippines, and along the Miyako Strait to the south of Japan.
The Asean defence ministers said they were hoping to speed up negotiations with China on a code of conduct, but the representative from the group’s current chair said it was unlikely to be achieved within the year.
“We hope it will be expedited but it’s a very, very complex issue,” Singapore’s Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said. “It’s a centuries-old dispute. Expecting [to get agreement on the code] in one year is just unrealistic.”
However, Ng said he hoped the 10 members of Asean would be able to agree on a separate code for unexpected encounters in the air by October, describing it as a move that would help to reduce security threats.
A code for unexpected encounters on the water in the South China Sea is already in place.
Singapore took over the Asean chairmanship for 2018 on January 1, and this week hosted meetings for the group’s foreign and defence ministers.
Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said on Tuesday that some Asean officials had expressed concern about China’s activities in disputed areas of the South China Sea, including its land reclamation projects.
Rajeev Ranjan Chaturvedy, a research associate at the Institute of South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore, said establishing a clear set of rules was becoming increasingly important as a way to prevent conflicts.
“I don’t think it [the code] is directed against any country, [but] there is increasing competition among major powers and the Asean region has complex territorial disputes,” he said. “Rising competition, congested space and miscommunication could result in conflict and that could spark a bigger crisis.”
The use of advanced technologies, such as drones, for surveillance and military purposes, was making things even more complicated, he said.
Dai Fan, a Southeast Asian affairs analyst from Jinan University, said some Asean states felt “unsafe” as a result of the increased competition between major powers in Asia.
“Asean countries are afraid that their security might be affected,” he said. “So they want to establish a set of rules to pre-empt possibly dangerous encounters in the air.”
Additional reporting by Reuters