The Philippines’ new foreign minister said on Monday the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations and China would unlikely be able to arrive at a legally binding code of conduct for the South China Sea.
ASEAN and China this year started formal negotiations for a code of conduct to ease tensions brought by conflicting claims over a strategic waterway where about $3 trillion worth of sea-borne goods passes every year.
“Perhaps we will not be able to arrive at a legally binding code of conduct,” Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin told a news conference in southern Davao City after holding talks with his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi.
“But, it will be the standard on how people of ASEAN, governments of ASEAN will behave towards each other–always with honor, never with aggression and always for the mutual progress.”
Locsin did not elaborate his statement on why raised doubts a binding agreement will be reached.
China, which claims almost the entire South China Sea, has put up artificial islands turning them into garrisons. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims on the rich fishing grounds.
Australia, Japan and the United States have urged ASEAN and China to ensure the code is “legally binding”, while critics have said failure to make it enforceable creates doubts about how effective it can be.
China’s top diplomat assured ASEAN it will abide by whatever will be agreed in ongoing negotiations.
China is hoping to conclude negotiations by 2021.
Wang also assured the Philippines it will not be threat to its smaller neighbor. “China has never been and will never be a rival for the Philippines,” he said as both top diplomats discussed President Xi Jinping’s planned visit to Manila next month.
Wang said that some “non-regional countries” were stirring up trouble in the disputed waters and “have been showing off their force.”
Wang said China and Southeast Asian nations should guard against foreign interference. China has repeatedly criticized what it says is U.S. meddling in an Asian territorial dispute.
“We shall work together to be vigilant against and prevent interferences and disruptions coming from the outside as China and the Philippines and other littoral states of the South China Sea are cooperating to uphold peace and cooperation,” Wang said.
The Chinese and Philippine coast guards have set up telephone hotlines to allow them to communicate rapidly to prevent any conflict from getting out of control in the disputed waters. Other possible arrangements are being discussed for ships and aircraft, he said.
“Mechanisms of this kind can effectively avoid misjudgment, prevent unexpected incidents,” Wang said. “China is also willing to build similar mechanisms with other claimant states so as to enhance communication and timely handle the emergencies should they happen.”