US, Australia, Japan want coercive acts at sea to be stopped

The role of the Philippines as 2017 chair of Asean has helped China keep a lid on discord.

Wang said the start of talks for a code of conduct in the disputed waters may be announced by the heads of state of China and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations at their annual summit in the Philippines in November if China's conditions are met.

While China is the most active in terms of building up the territories it controls, both the Philippines and Vietnam have begun to follow Beijing's lead.

Asean ties with the United States, under President Donald Trump, have been in flux, as questions linger over Washington's commitment to maritime security and trade in Asia, diminishing the grouping's bargaining power with Beijing.

The ASEAN foreign ministers and their Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, on Sunday adopted a framework for negotiating a code of conduct to defuse tensions in the sea.

Japan has been calling on parties concerned to faithfully follow the July 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, the Netherlands, that rejected China's claims in its territorial dispute with the Philippines in the South China Sea.

Adding to the drumbeat of criticism, the commander of USA forces in the Pacific, Adm. Harry Harris, said Monday that the code of conduct negotiations with an "aggressive" China will be a key challenge for the region.

"The ministers voiced their strong opposition to coercive unilateral actions that could alter the status quo and increase tensions, " they said in a joint statement on the sidelines of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) ministerial meetings in Manila.

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The framework papers over the big differences between Asean nations and China, said Patrick Cronin of the Center for a New American Security.

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

"There's still no consensus", one of the diplomats said earlier in the day, adding the disagreements over the wordings on the sea issue were holding up the release of the communique. China has long denied interfering.

Vietnam sought mention of respect for "sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction" not only in accordance with global law, but more specifically, UNCLOS.

China insists the nations should stay out of what it says are purely bilateral disputes with its neighbours.

China claims almost all of the sea, through which US$ 5 trillion in annual shipping trade passes and which is believed to sit atop vast oil and gas deposits.

The statement also called on ASEAN members and China to ensure that a code of conduct they have pledged to develop regarding the South China Sea be "legally binding, meaningful, effective, and consistent with global law". Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims.

(Copyright © 2015. All Rights Reserved.)
 
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