After nine years of negotiations, China and ASEAN agreed on Wednesday on a historic set of guidelines for cooperation on disputed areas in the South China Sea, a sign that both sides have moved toward easing tensions over various claims to energy-rich islands in the area.
The agreement was reached after senior officials from both sides met during the annual meetings of ASEAN, ahead of Thursday’s gathering of the regional grouping’s foreign ministers.
The document — the guidelines for the implementation of the declaration of conduct (DOC) — is aimed to “guide the implementation of possible joint cooperative activities, measures and projects”, according to the draft discussed in the meeting.
“Through the fruitful and constructive discussion and dialogue, we have been able to arrive at our level of agreement on the draft guideline of the implementation of the DOC,” Pham Quang Vinh of Vietnam, who was cochairing the meeting, told reporters.
He hailed the process as “significant and as a good start for both parties to work together to continue dialogue and cooperation, with their view to further promote peace, stability and confidence in the region”.
Liu Zhen Min, assistant to China’s Foreign Minister and co-chair of the meeting, said that they would submit the documents to their respective foreign ministers for final endorsement on Thursday.
“This is an important milestone document in the cooperation among China and ASEAN countries. Now, we have a bright future that we’re looking forward to for future cooperation,” he said.
During the meeting, both sides also discussed follow-up activities, including cooperation in the area.
“We will continue to consult with each other on the subject. We have decided to convene the 7th meeting of the joint working group within the course of this year to be hosted by China,” Vinh said.
While the guidelines provide a form of confidence building measures, they are not aimed at avoiding clashes in the area.
The question remains can China and ASEAN agree on the start of negotiations on the code of conduct (COC), which will specify terms of engagement among parties in the area.
Frequent naval clashes between claimant countries, comprising of China and four ASEAN countries – Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei — in the South China Sea, especially in the area near the Spratly and the Paracel Islands, have turned the territory into a source of tension in the region.
Guidelines based on ASEAN’s draft:
1. The implementation of the DOC should be carried out in a step-by-step approach in line with the provisions of the DOC
2. The parties to the DOC will continue to promote dialogue and consultations in accordance with the spirit of the DOC
3. The implementation of activities or projects as provided for in the DOC should be clearly identified
4. The participation in the activities or projects should be carried out on a voluntary basis
5. Initial activities to be undertaken under the ambit of the DOC should be confidence-building measures
6. The decision to implement concrete measures or activities of the DOC should be based on consensus among parties concerned, and lead to the eventual realization of a Code of Conduct (COC)
7. In the implementation of the agreed projects under the DOC, the services of the experts and eminent persons, if necessary, will be sought to provide specific input on the projects concerned
8. Progress of the implementation of the agreed activities and projects under the DOC shall be reported annually to the ASEAN-China Ministerial Meeting (PMC)