Updated at 5:45 p.m. ET on 2019-07-11
ASEAN defense ministers on Thursday committed to creating a “sea of peace” in the South China Sea, a region marked by tension over competing territorial claims by member nations, Taipei and Beijing, which has built up its military presence there.
Meeting in Bangkok, the defense chiefs representing the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations signed a declaration, which includes a guideline to reach a code of conduct in the South China Sea while improving information-sharing among members.
“We affirm the importance of promotion of peace, stability, safety and freedom to sail in the South China Sea,” Thai Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwan told reporters after the ministers signed the declaration, which was delivered to ASEAN Secretary-General Dato Lim Jock Hoi.
The declaration emphasized the commitment of “all parties to work together in a constructive and peaceful manner for the South China Sea to become a sea of peace, stability and prosperity through the full and effective implementation of the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea and the early conclusion of an effective code of conduct in the South China Sea on a mutually agreed timeline.”
It did not go into detail about how this and other goals would be reached, but Prawit announced that the defense ministers had reached an agreement.
“We agreed to promote mutual trust and restraint to avoid acts which could make the situation more complicated and promote peaceful conflict settlement through the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea,” Prawit said in responding to a reporter’s question.
South China Sea tensions
Last month, tensions were raised between Manila and Beijing after a Chinese trawler allegedly rammed into a Philippine fishing boat off Recto Bank and left 22 Filipino fishermen stranded at sea. Amid mounting domestic anger over the sinking of the Filipino boat, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in late June agreed to an offer by Beijing to conduct a joint investigation into the incident.
China has constructed military facilities on islands in the South China Sea, much of which it claims as its own including waters in the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines. It has denied claims by the United States that it has conducted missile tests.
U.S. officials joined the Philippines and other nations in June issuing a warning against China’s efforts to expand its territories. In addition, the state department announced that Washington is supplying four ASEAN members – the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam – with drones to be used for South China Sea surveillance.
The Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam, along with ASEAN member Brunei and non-member Taiwan, have their own claims to portions of the South China Sea.
Other ASEAN members are Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar and Singapore.
In June, following the 34th summit of ASEAN leaders, Thailand, which is chairing the regional bloc this year, announced that progress was made in negotiations “toward the early conclusion of an effective and substantive code of conduct” for ASEAN members and China.
That statement was referring to the first of three planned rounds of talks on the proposed code, with more difficult points such as whether it should be legally binding or relegated to later rounds, according to diplomats. Officials expect a first reading of the code by the end of 2019.
Thursday’s declaration reaffirmed “the importance of maintaining and promoting peace, security and freedom of navigation in and overflight the South China Sea as well as the need to enhance mutual trust and confidence, exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities and avoid actions that could further complicate the situation and purse peaceful resolution of disputes.”
In addition to the South China Sea efforts, the ministers adopted a series of plans to deal with regional security issues, including setting up a hotline.
Maj. Gen. Tikumporn Chuleelang, a Thai defense planner, said the ministers were setting up the special phone line with the so called ASEAN-Plus countries – Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, Russia and the United States – along with a group of European Union countries.
“It will be a direct phone call or hot line, defense ministers could call each other to discuss matters directly,” he said.