South China Sea: Asean, Beijing continue to work towards code of conduct
- Sides have ‘deepened mutual trust and understanding … managed our differences peacefully’, says Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong
- Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte says biggest threat to safety in disputed waterway comes from countries outside the region
China and its Southeast Asian neighbours have reiterated their commitment to work together to avoid confrontation and clashes in the disputed South China Sea, as Beijing also called for greater cooperation on trade.
Speaking on Wednesday at a regional summit in Singapore, Lee Hsien Loong, prime minister of the city state, said the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and China would continue to advance their strategic partnership and pointed to the joint maritime exercise held last month as evidence of how the two sides could build good relations.
“We have deepened mutual trust and understanding, and managed our differences peacefully,” he said.
Territorial disputes in the South China Sea, where Beijing has stepped up its military deployment in recent years, is one of the main agenda items at the Asean-China meeting, especially in the light of the close encounters between Chinese and US naval vessels.
US Vice-President Mike Pence said in a meeting with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xhan Phuc on the sidelines of the summit that Washington was committed to maintaining openness in the waterway.
“We share your desire for a binding Asean code of conduct to ensure free and open navigation in the South China Sea,” he said.
In a separate interview with The Washington Post, Pence said the US would not be intimidated by China.
“We will not stand down.” he said. “We will continue to exercise freedom of navigation.”
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said countries in the region were able to manage territorial disputes as they were working towards a code of conduct to govern activity in the South China Sea.
“We have found the way to properly manage and defuse differences,” he said.
The situation was moving towards “greater stability” and progress was being made on a single draft text for a code of conduct for the sea, he said, adding that Beijing wanted to have a final agreement within three years.
China and Asean already have a non-binding “declaration” for the waterway but are working towards a more robust agreement.
Top US officials reject Chinese demand to stop military moves that ‘undermine’ Beijing’s sovereignty in South China Sea
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said that while a code of conduct for the South China Sea was needed “at all costs”, the threat of confrontation and trouble in the waterway came from outside the region.
“Everything’s been excellent between China and the rest of Asean, except for the fact that there’s friction between Western nations and China,” he said as he headed into the summit.
Despite Duterte comments, the Philippines has been one of the most vocal critics of China’s aggression in the sea, where it has built up military installations and other facilities. In 2016, the United Nations ruled in Manila’s favour on a dispute it had with Beijing over territorial rights.
Away from the troubles of the South China Sea, Premier Li also called for China and Asean to boost regional investment and trade, and said the two sides had completed the domestic procedures to upgrade their free-trade agreement.
Additional reporting by Associated Press and Bloomberg