China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi attends the ASEAN-China Ministerial Meeting on the sidelines of the 51st ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting in Singapore, Thursday, Aug. 2, 2018. (AP Photo/Yong Teck Lim)

China calls draft pact on territorial feud a 'breakthrough'

August 02, 2018 - 8:29 am

SINGAPORE (AP) — China's top diplomat said Thursday that an initial draft of a proposed pact with Southeast Asia aimed at preventing fighting in the disputed South China Sea was a "breakthrough," and that talks can accelerate without outside interference.

China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which includes four rival claimants to territories in the sea, have been holding sporadic talks for years on a "code of conduct," a set of regional norms and rules aimed at preventing a shooting war in the disputed waters.

Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan announced at the start of an annual meeting of top diplomats from China and the 10-nation bloc that both sides have agreed on an initial draft that will be the basis of future negotiations. He called the development a "milestone."

"This is good news," Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told the ASEAN ministers. "This is a breakthrough for the COC (code of conduct) negotiation."

At a news conference later, Wang said: "We believe that without any disturbances from the outside, COC consultations will accelerate."

Wang did not elaborate, but in the past, China has accused Washington of meddling in what it calls an Asian dispute. The U.S. has deployed ships and jets to patrol the waters to promote freedom of navigation and overflight. It has often raised alarm over China's assertive actions, including its construction of islands where it has placed weapons including surface-to-air missiles.

In October, China and ASEAN are to hold their first joint maritime exercises as they elevate their security cooperation. An indoor "table-top" exercise between the two sides has been held in Singapore this week as a prelude to the bigger sea maneuvers, the Chinese premier said.

"The past progress has shown that China and ASEAN countries have the ability to maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea and have the wisdom to arrive at a set of regional rules of conduct that we all will observe," Wang told reporters.

Meeting among themselves earlier, the ASEAN foreign ministers praised the completion of the draft.

The ministers "were encouraged by the progress of the substantive negotiations towards the early conclusion of an effective code of conduct in the South China Sea on a mutually agreed timeline," they said in a joint statement.

Despite the development, "some concerns" were raised "on the land reclamations and activities in the area, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region," the ministers said, reflecting divisions on the issue.

Vietnam, for one, has been vocal in expressing concerns over China's transformation of seven disputed reefs into man-made islands, including three with runways, which now resemble small cities armed with weapons systems.

ASEAN members Cambodia and Laos, which are Chinese allies, have opposed the use of strong language against Beijing in the disputes.

China has come under intense criticism for militarization of the strategic waterway, but says it has the right to build on its territories and defend them at all costs.

A senior ASEAN diplomat involved in the talks said negotiations on the regional code could start in Cambodia as early as this month.

Two other Southeast Asian diplomats told The Associated Press that China and ASEAN have agreed to keep details of the negotiations confidential, which would prevent outside parties like the U.S. and Japan from intervening.

The two officials said China and ASEAN member states gave their inputs in recent weeks to Singapore, which collated them into a negotiating draft. They said the two sides would first try to craft easier provisions before moving on to contentious ones, such as whether the accord should be legally binding and its geographic scope.

The three diplomats spoke on condition of anonymity because they lacked the authority to discuss the issue publicly.

"There will be the inevitable differences, if not tensions, within ASEAN on what should be in the document. You have claimant and non-claimant states. You have countries with very close ties with China and those more cautious of China," said Eugene Tan, an associate professor of law at Singapore Management University.

"A meeting of minds is essential to set the stage for the arduous road ahead," Tan said.

The ASEAN ministers also welcomed rapprochement between North Korea and South Korea and the U.S. and reaffirmed their commitment "to combat the scourge of violent extremism, radicalization and terrorism."

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