China is hopeful for “new progress” to be made in ongoing talks with the Asean bloc for a code of conduct governing the disputed South China Sea, Premier Li Keqiang said at a summit on Sunday, as other regional leaders called for countries to exercise restraint over the row.
Li’s comments at the twice-yearly Association of Southeast Asian Nations meeting comes amid flaring tensions between Vietnam and Beijing over the dispute triggered by a Chinese oil survey vessel that remained within waters claimed by the Southeast Asian country for more than three months.
“We stand ready to work with Asean countries building on the existing foundation and basis to strive for new progress in the [code of conduct], according to the three-year time frame, so as to maintain and uphold long term peace in the South China Sea,” Li said at the start of a plenary session with the 10 Asean leaders.
Li said Beijing was committed to maintaining “political mutual trust” with the Asean bloc, adding both sides “support stability in the region”.
He lauded the first reading of the draft text for the South China Sea code of conduct earlier this year as a key waypoint in efforts to enact a system to manage and resolve disputes in the strategic waterway, one of the world’s busiest.
China claims almost the entirety of the waters as part of its controversial “nine-dash line”.
That boundary is challenged by Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei – along with the self governed island of Taiwan.
The Southeast Asian claimants say the Chinese boundary encroaches their territorial waters as set out by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas, while Taiwan – viewed by Beijing as a renegade province – has a similar claim as the mainland.
China’s militarisation and building of artificial islands in the waters, along with its naval and coastguard vessels’ frequent warding off of civilian ships making passage through the disputed sea, have been a key cause of friction between it and other claimant states.
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte in a speech on Saturday to the other nine leaders of Asean said “self restraint” on the part of all parties was necessary to resolve the sea dispute.
Duterte said his government would do its “utmost part” to conclude negotiations on the code of conduct as part of its role as the current Asean-China country coordinator.
“Notwithstanding the lack of enthusiasm by some external partners, I believe that we in Asean are one in the view that an effective and substantive [code of conduct] will be good for the region,” he was quoted as saying in the closed door session, according to a statement by the presidential palace on Sunday.
He said: “Asean must, therefore, remain united. We must lead the way in building trust and confidence among all stakeholders. And we must use all the influence that we have, individually and collectively, to persuade parties to exercise self-restraint and avoid actions that may further complicate the situation”.
The Philippine president’s spokesman, Salvador Panelo, told reporters after the Asean meeting with Li that the 10-nation bloc was united against what he termed “common enemies” such as “terrorism, the South China Sea row, and the US-China trade war”.
The sea dispute was not explicitly raised by Duterte during the meeting with Li, Panelo said.
Singapore’s Straits Times said the country’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong welcomed Li’s remarks on sticking to a previously decided three-year timeline to end talks on the code of conduct.
“But it is even more important to get the outcomes right, and to have an effective and substantive code of conduct,” Lee was quoted as saying.
As has been the case in previous years, officials from Vietnam and Cambodia – China’s main proxy in Asean – last week disagreed on how the South China Sea should be characterised in the summit’s final communique, diplomatic sources with knowledge of the matter told the South China Morning Post.
Tensions were particularly high between the two countries because the Chinese vessel Haiyang Dizhi 8 had stayed within waters claimed by Hanoi to conduct seismic surveys.
It left the waters in October, after entering in early July.
Reports have indicated the Chinese action was taken to deter Vietnam from conducting joint exploration activities with countries outside Asean, such as Russia.
Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah wrote on Twitter that he had raised the South China Sea issue during the Asean bloc’s political and security community council meeting on Saturday.
While the code of conduct remained under negotiation, Saifuddin said Malaysia was “very concerned about the presence of coastguard boats on our shores more frequently”.
He did not name the country of origin of the vessels but said they were getting nearer and were harbouring in Malaysian waters.
Chinese coastguard vessels have for some time maintained a presence near the South Luconia Shoals off the Malaysian state of Sarawak in Borneo.
A joint statement issued after Li’s meeting with the 10 Asean leaders reiterated a long time commitment by both sides to boost connectivity and uphold the principles of “openness, transparency, inclusiveness and Asean centrality”.
The statement said China was encouraged to “actively support the development and financing of Asean infrastructure projects and promote connectivity cooperation in areas such as railways, motorways, port and harbours, airports, power and communication, for building better business and investment environment.”