China wants to speed up the negotiations for a code of conduct in the disputed South China Sea and have it finalized within the Philippines’ three-year term as dialogue coordinator between Beijing and the Southeast Asian nations, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said Monday.
But Wang was non-committal when asked if China would agree to a legally-binding code of conduct.
“Whether or not it is legally binding, any document we have signed we will strictly abide by it and firmly implement it,” Wang told a joint press conference with his Philippine counterpart, Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr., in Davao City.
Wang said China is the Philippines’ “sincere and trustworthy friend” and “will never be a rival.”
Since Duterte reset the Philippines’ ties with China, the two-way trade between Manila and Beijing in 2017 alone topped $50 billion while Philippine exports grew 10.5 percent.
And over two years, China bought two million pounds of bananas, pineapples, and mangoes, helping 40,000 farmers earn $1.5 billion, Wang said.
On Aug. 3, China and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, of which the Philippines and three other South China Sea claimants are members, announced an agreement on a single draft South China Sea Code of Conduct negotiating text.
The draft, which will serve as the basis for negotiations of the code, is expected to propel China and the Asean toward an agreement on a set of formal guidelines in the resource-rich waters as the efforts to finalize the accord has dragged on for 16 years.
“We are ready to work with the Asean countries to speed up the code of conduct consultations. We also hope to conclude the consultation during the term of the Philippines as the country coordinator for Asean-China relations, so that we can set up a set of regional norms to ensure peace and stability in the South China Sea,” Wang said.
The Philippines assumed the role of country coordinator in August this year and will lead the dialogue until 2021.
A regional code of conduct aims to prevent the conflicting territorial claims in the potentially-oil rich region from erupting into violent confrontations or, worse, an economically-devastating major conflict.
In place of a legally-binding code, China and the Asean, which groups the Philippines, Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Cambodia, Myanmar, and Laos, settled for a mere declaration in 2002 that calls on the claimants to exercise restraint and stop new occupations in the South China Sea.
But its non-binding nature and lack of provision to sanction misbehaving claimants renders the accord useless against aggression.
Finalizing the code has acquired urgency due to the series of confrontations between China and its smaller Southeast Asian neighbors with competing claims to the waters like the Philippines and Vietnam.
The other claimants are Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.
The Asean has long held the position that the code of conduct must be legally-binding, but China opposes this. It’s not clear how this basic difference will affect the progress of future efforts by both sides to negotiate the code.
But Wang said China “is open-minded on what specific contents will be put into the text.”
“By that, we welcome all constructive opinions within the framework of a single text that has been agreed. Through this way we could pull consensus as much as we can,” Wang said.
Locsin said if the Asean and China fail to agree to a legally-binding document, the code would still be a significant regional document.
“Perhaps we may not be able to arrive at a legally binding COC, but it will be the standard on how the people of Asean, the governments of Asean will behave towards each other. Always with honor, never with aggression and always for mutual progress,” Locsin said.
As Asean and China aspire to expeditiously hammer out a code, Wang urged the regional bloc to be “vigilant” against intervention, “prevent interferences” and “disruptions” coming from “non-regional forces.”
Without naming any country, he said some forces were out to destabilize the situation in the South China Sea where he said tensions have deescalated in the last two years.
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