The key to regional peace and stability

Top diplomats of Asean and China who attended the 50th Asean Ministerial Meeting in Manila showed their ability to work together to maintain regional peace and stability when they agreed on the framework for a code of conduct (COC) in the South China Sea and targeted to start formal negotiations on the actual code by the end of the year. For the first time, they underlined the importance of nonmilitarization and self-restraint in conducting activities by all claimants, including those mentioned in the Declaration on the Conduct of the Parties in the South China Sea.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said the most substantial progress made was that, with the joint efforts of China and Asean, the situation in the South China Sea has been stabilized. His words: “We have carried out effective cooperation and have brought it back to the track to resolve disputes through direct dialogue and negotiation by the parties directly concerned.”

Wang earlier said talks for a nonaggression pact aimed at preventing clashes from erupting in the strategic and potentially oil- and gas-rich disputed waterways may start this year if outside parties don’t cause a major disruption. He was apparently referring to the US, which China has, for the longest time, accused of meddling in what it says is an Asian dispute that should be resolved only by the countries involved. China’s other precondition before it agrees to start talks on the COC is that “the situation in the South China Sea should also be generally stable”.

At the closing ceremonies of the 50th Asean Ministerial Meeting and Related Meetings, Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter S. Cayetano said the joint communiqué that called for nonmilitarization and self-restraint in South China Sea activities reflects the sentiment of the whole Asean. Describing the joint communiqué as a “negotiated document” adopted by all Asean members, the DFA chief also agreed with China’s proposal to have a generally stable [South China Sea]  and no major disruption from outside parties before they could announce the official start of the COC consultation in November.

“I look at it more as a prerequisite and it is a logical prerequisite for me. That’s why, if you look at our statement, it is directed to all states that we shouldn’t do anything in the area unilaterally and shouldn’t do anything that will make us regret and lose trust and lead to conflict,” Cayetano said.

China has had robust economic ties with Asean, a region of more than 600 million people with a combined GDP of $2.4 trillion. But the Asian giant had long been perceived as delaying negotiations with Asean for the maritime code to allow it to complete its land reclamations in the South China Sea without any regulatory restrictions. But things may turn around soon. By agreeing to start substantive consultations on the text of the COC within the year, China is showing the world it wants solve disputes through dialogue and consultation with all parties concerned to ensure peace and stability in the Asian region.

In the joint communiqué, the Asean foreign ministers commended China’s growing role in the region and expressed expectations for more high-level dialogue and higher level of economic integration. When completed, the COC will certainly create new opportunities for closer strategic partnerships and greater economic development in the region.