MANILA, Philippines — Southeast Asia’s top diplomats will seek talks “as soon as possible” on a proposed nonaggression pact with China aimed at preventing clashes in the South China Sea and will likely hold back on criticism of China’s aggressive acts in the disputed waters in a weekend summit.
An initial draft of a joint communique to be issued by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations foreign ministers, seen by The Associated Press on Wednesday, says they will ask senior diplomats to immediately initiate talks on the so-called Code of Conduct in the disputed sea after their governments agreed on a framework of the accord with China in May.
The ASEAN ministers will ask their senior diplomats “to begin earnest discussions on a substantive and effective code of conduct on the basis of the framework as soon as possible,” according to the draft communique.
The long-seething disputes in the South China Sea, alarm over North Korea’s missile tests and the rise of Islamic radicalism in the region amid a deadly siege by Islamic State group-linked militants in the southern Philippines are expected to grab the spotlight in the meetings of ASEAN foreign ministers and their Asian and Western counterparts in Manila starting Saturday.
Robespierre Bolivar, spokesman of the Department of Foreign Affairs, described the initial progress after years of efforts by Southeast Asian countries to negotiate a code of conduct with China “as a very big step.”
Critics have said the framework serves only as a brief outline of previously agreed principles and fails to mention concerns over China’s newly built islands or an arbitration ruling last year that invalidated Beijing’s historic basis for its claims to virtually all of the South China Sea. Beijing has refused to recognize the ruling, based on a 1982 maritime treaty.
A final copy of the framework seen by the AP also did not mention whether the Code of Conduct should be legally binding, which most ASEAN states demand but China opposes, or the extent of disputed areas to be covered by such a code. The code will not serve as a tool to settle territorial disputes, according to the framework.
During the talks, some ASEAN states proposed language “that did not enjoy consensus,” including a proposal by Vietnam for a “dispute-settlement mechanism” in case disputes arise in the future over interpretation of the code, according to an ASEAN report attached to the framework.
The draft communique, still to be expanded with inputs from other ASEAN members, also doesn’t mention concern about China’s artificial islands, where a missile defense system has reportedly been installed. Those concerns have appeared in previous ASEAN joint statements.
A carefully crafted line on the dangers lurking in the dispute appears in the draft statement. “We reaffirmed the importance of enhancing mutual trust and confidence, exercising self-restraint … and avoiding unilateral actions in disputed features that may further complicate the situation,” it said.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who is ASEAN chairman this year, moved swiftly after taking office last year to revive his country’s once-frosty ties with China while taking an antagonistic attitude toward its U.S. ally.
Duterte set aside the Philippines’ arbitration victory over China but promised to take it up with Chinese leaders before the end of his six-year term. His move has eased tensions but has been criticized as squandering an opportunity to promote the rule of law in a disputed sea that governments fear may spark Asia’s next major armed conflict.
Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, who has studied the disputes extensively, said China may benefit more from a code of conduct if it waits to fully develop its artificial islands and fortify them as military outposts before signing the code with ASEAN. Then, the code “will provide a cover to China’s completed reclamation and militarization,” he said.
The ASEAN ministers will also express their grave concern over North Korea’s missile tests, including at Monday’s ASEAN Regional Forum, a security-focused gathering also attended by their U.S., Russian, Chinese, South and North Korean and Japanese counterparts.
Duterte briefly lashed out at North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in a speech Wednesday, saying he has a kind-looking face but is really a “son of a bitch” and disturbed.
“He’s a maniac. If he commits a mistake, then the Far East will become an arid land,” Duterte said.