Southeast Asian nations to start talks with China on sea code

MANILA, Philippines (AP) – Leaders of Southeast Asian countries and China agreed yesterday to begin negotiations on a “code of conduct” aimed at controlling aggressive actions in the disputed South China Sea, a step they described as a milestone, but some experts said was unlikely to ensure compliance.

Leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) will also sign an accord protecting migrant workers coming from poorer countries in the region during a two-day summit that opened yesterday in Manila, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said.

The Asean leaders will express “grave concern” over North Korea’s development of “weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear and chemical weapons, and ballistic missile technologies,” and strongly condemn terrorism, according to a draft of a summit communique seen by The Associated Press.

Department of Foreign Affairs spokesman Robespierre Bolivar said China and the 10 Asean member countries agreed to start negotiations on the code of conduct. A separate statement to be issued after a meeting between the Asean leaders and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said the approval last August of a framework for the code of conduct was “an important milestone”, and both sides anticipated an early conclusion of the agreement.

File photo shows a sandbar on a disputed area of the South China Sea. Negotiations have begun on a ‘code of conduct’ aimed at controlling aggressive actions in the disputed South China Sea. – AP

“While the situation is calmer now, we cannot take the current progress for granted,” the leaders said in the draft statement.

It’s “important that we cooperate to maintain peace, stability, freedom of navigation in and over-flight above the South China Sea in accordance with international law,” they said. “It is in our collective interest to avoid miscalculations that could lead to escalation of tensions.”

In a speech at the start of the meeting, Li insisted on China’s peaceful intentions and said it was the first country to accede to a 1976 non-aggression treaty signed by Asean. “We are committed to working with Asean to be good neighbours, good friends and good partners that always stand together, rain or shine,” Li said.