ASEAN, China to Discuss Maritime Code of Conduct

Indonesia’s foreign minister told reporters on Thursday that his counterparts will hold a special meeting with China to discuss a code of conduct in the disputed South China Sea, according to AFP:

The meeting was proposed by China and all countries within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have agreed to participate, Marty Natalegawa told reporters at a meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers in Brunei.

The agreement is potentially significant as China has insisted on handling territorial disputes bilaterally with individual countries, while ASEAN wants to speak as a group, a disconnect blamed for hindering progress on a code.

Although no date has been set, Natalegawa said the planned meeting underscored the importance of making “progress on the code of conduct and to maintain a positive atmosphere in the ”.

“About where and when and how, I think that’s something that needs to be worked out,” he added, of the meeting’s details.

Tensions in the South China Sea may have taken a backseat in recent months to ongoing tussle between China and Japan in the Diaoyu Islands, which lie in the East China Sea, but they have nonetheless lingered. Most recently, Vietnam accused China of attacking fishermen in the disputed region, charges which China defended as “legitimate and reasonable” actions against illegal activity by the Vietnamese boats.

The announcement of accelerated talks surfaced as new Chinese president inspected the navy’s South Fleet in this week, where the Associated Press reports that he called on soldiers to be prepared for military conflict:

China has been bolstering its naval capabilities in the South China Sea with expanded bases and patrol missions, sometimes tangling with ships from Vietnam and the Philippines that also claim island groups in the area of crucial sea lanes and rich fishing grounds. Sanya is key to asserting China’s claims and is home to some of the navy’s most modern vessels and an extensive submarine base.

Among the ships he visited was the Jinggangshan, which last month visited the country’s southernmost territorial claim as part of military drills in the Spratly Islands involving amphibious landings and aircraft.

The visit to James Shoal followed several days of exercises and marked a high-profile show of China’s determination to stake its claim to territory disputed by Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei amid rising tensions in the region.