Bloomberg News

China, Asean Guidelines in Disputed Sea Shift ‘Status Quo’

July 21, 2011

(Adds Indonesian minister’s comment in third paragraph, draft of guidelines in fifth paragraph.)

July 21 (Bloomberg) -- China and Southeast Asian nations agreed today on non-binding guidelines for joint activities in the South China Sea, a diplomatic bargain that the Philippines said fails to address the root of recent tensions.

Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi met counterparts from the 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations after the countries settled yesterday on a framework to implement a 2002 agreement on behavior in the sea, a step toward a legally binding code of conduct.

“The status quo was not an option,” Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa told reporters in Bali, where more than 20 countries are attending a regional security meeting this week. “You can see that year in and year out things were beginning to get worse. I’m not saying from now on things will get better, but at least now we can move on.”

The Philippines and Vietnam have pushed Asean to formalize a set of rules to avoid clashes with China, which claims most of the South China Sea as its own. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who angered China last year by declaring a national interest in the waters, arrives in Bali later today after urging India to play a greater role in policing Asia-Pacific waterways.

The 2002 Asean-China statement calls on signatories to avoid occupying disputed islands, inform others of military exercises and resolve territorial disputes peacefully. The eight guidelines approved today say activities in the sea should be step-by-step, on a voluntary basis and based on consensus, according to a draft obtained by Bloomberg News.

Those projects will lead to the eventual realization of the code of conduct, the draft said.

‘Main Game’

“When one looks at the guidelines, one must look beyond the actual wording” as countries can now focus on “the main game” of the legally binding code of conduct, Natalegawa said. Dealing with territorial disputes in the guidelines would have caused discussions to “immediately collapse,” he said.

The Philippines and Vietnam reject China’s map of the South China Sea as a basis for joint development of oil and gas resources. The Asean members have pushed ahead with exploration work, prompting Chinese patrol ships to disrupt those activities in the past few months.

Chinese ships cut survey cables of Vietnam Oil & Gas Group vessels twice in the past few months and in March chased away a boat working for U.K.-based Forum Energy Plc that was surveying the area. A Chinese frigate fired warning shots at Philippine trawlers on Feb. 25.

‘Still Incomplete’

“The necessary elements to make the guidelines succeed are still incomplete,” Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert F. del Rosario told reporters late yesterday in Bali. The failure to deal with competing territorial claims in the waters means “the problem hasn’t gone away,” he said.

China wants “to be a good friend, good partner, good neighbor with the Asean countries,” Chinese Assistant Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin told reporters after today’s meeting. China plans to host a meeting on the South China Sea later this year “to articulate areas of cooperation and start the implementation of projects,” he said.

China’s actions in the waters provoked protests in Hanoi over the past month and prompted a group of Filipino lawmakers to travel yesterday to the disputed Spratly Islands, which are also claimed by Malaysia, Taiwan, Brunei, Vietnam and China. All those countries except Brunei have troops stationed in the area.

“We should back up our efforts to push this territorial claim with economic development and civilianize the island,” Philippine lawmaker Walden Bello told reporters during his visit to Pag-Asa island in the South China Sea.

‘Strong Protest’

China expressed “strong protest” over the visit, Xinhua News Agency said yesterday, citing Ma Zhaoxu, a spokesman for the country’s Foreign Ministry.

“The move of the Philippine side seriously infringed China’s territorial sovereignty,” Ma said, as cited by the official news service. He called on the Philippines to abide by the bilateral consensus on the issue, Xinhua reported.

China last week rejected attempts by the Philippines to bring the maritime boundary dispute before the UN’s International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. The Philippines plans to ask another United Nations arbitration panel to demarcate disputed areas of the sea “to prove our claim,” del Rosario said.

The U.S. has a mutual defense treaty with the Philippines and has boosted military relations with Vietnam. Del Rosario said yesterday the U.S. treaty applies to islands also claimed by China.

The Philippines’ recent actions “could score political points,” Mark J. Valencia, a senior research fellow with the National Bureau of Asian Research, said by phone from Honolulu. President Benigno Aquino’s administration “definitely has done everything that China has asked them not to do.”

--With assistance from Joel Guinto in Manila, Nicole Gaouette in Washington, Joshua Fellman in New York and Patrick Harrington in Tokyo. Editors: Patrick Harrington, Ben Richardson

To contact the reporters on this story: Daniel Ten Kate in Bangkok at dtenkate@bloomberg.net; Karl Lester M. Yap in Manila at kyap5@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: John Brinsley at jbrinsley@bloomberg.net


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