FOREIGN MINISTERS of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China on Sunday have agreed on the framework for a code of conduct on the disputed South China Sea after the ASEAN diplomats failed to release a communique Saturday as a consensus could not be reached on the wording for the region’s common stance.

Wang Yi
China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi speaks during a press conference on the sidelines of the 50th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) regional security forum in suburban Manila on August 6, 2017. AFP

At a press conference after the ASEAN-China Ministerial meeting on Sunday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi announced that the foreign ministers had agreed on the framework and a three-step initiative towards the drafting of the final Code of Conduct (CoC).

Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs Spokesperson Robespierre L. Bolivar, in a press briefing also after the meeting, confirmed that the ministers had agreed on taking three steps following the adoption of the framework.

“First, the announcement of the adoption of the framework at the 50th AMM (ASEAN Ministerial Meeting)… Second, a meeting will be convened at the end of August to discuss the modalities for negotiations of the actual code of conduct with the approved framework as the basis… Third, the leaders of ASEAN and China are expected to announce the formal start of the negotiations on the code at the summit in November,” he said.

Mr. Bolivar said the pending joint communiqué will be released at the end of the cycle of meetings “as a package with all the chairman’s statements on Monday or Tuesday.”

“The joint communiqué is a consensus document and whatever comes out… would mean that all 10 ASEAN member states would have agreed,” he said.

Furthermore, he said China and the ASEAN members will continue to cooperate on such “practical maritime efforts, including management and prevention of conflicts among parties through confidence building measures to prevent miscalculations on the ground.”

Sunday’s announcement was preceded by Vietnam’s insistence that a tough language be stated in the joint communiqué concerning China’s land reclamation in the contested waters, two diplomats involved in the talks told AFP.

Cambodia, however, resisted Vietnam’s proposal.

“Vietnam is adamant, and China is effectively using Cambodia to champion its interests. But the Philippines is trying very hard to broker compromise language,” one diplomat said.

Vietnam had insisted that tough language be inserted into the statement expressing concern over “land reclamation,” a reference to an explosion in recent years of Chinese artificial island building in contested parts of the waters.

Cambodia, one of China’s strongest allies within ASEAN, has firmly resisted, according to the diplomats as well as an excerpt of the proposed Cambodian resolution obtained by AFP on Sunday.

China claims nearly all of the sea, through which $5 trillion in annual shipping trade passes, and its artificial islands have raised concerns it could eventually build military bases there and establish de facto control over the waters.

Its sweeping claims overlap with those of ASEAN members Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.

Singapore Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan said the framework is a significant step forward as “it represents the culmination of effective and constructive cooperation between ASEAN and China over the past year.”

He added that the framework “will pave the way for the textural negotiations on the CoC in the coming year.”

Also attending the 50th AMM is United States Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson, who is set to meet with Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter S. Cayetano.

Mr. Bolivar said they are still “finding another mutually convenient time for the meeting between Secretary Cayetano and Secretary Tillerson.” — Mario M. Banzon and AFP