ASEAN Vows To Conclude Pact With China On Disputed Territory

China and the ASEAN member states, which include four rival claimants to territories in the South China Sea, have been holding sporadic talks for years on a 'code of conduct', a set of regional norms and rules aimed at preventing a clash the disputed waters.

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Southeast Asian foreign ministers vowed to finalise negotiations with China over a proposed pact aimed at preventing conflicts in the disputed South China Sea in their annual retreat on Saturday in Indonesia's capital

In the final session of their two-day meeting, the ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations also agreed to unite in their approach to implement a five-step agreement made in 2021 between ASEAN leaders and Myanmar's military leader, Senior Gen Min Aung Hlaing, that seeks to end that country's worsening crisis.

China and the ASEAN member states, which include four rival claimants to territories in the South China Sea, have been holding sporadic talks for years on a “code of conduct,” a set of regional norms and rules aimed at preventing a clash the disputed waters.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said that Indonesia, this year's ASEAN chair, is ready to host more rounds of negotiations over the proposed pact, the first of which will be held in March. She said ASEAN members are committed to concluding the discussions “as soon as possible."

“Members are also committed to promote implementation of a declaration of conduct,” Marsudi added.

Marsudi 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.

Sidharto Suryodipuro, head of ASEAN Cooperation at Indonesia's Foreign Ministry, told reporters in Jakarta that ASEAN member states will push negotiations this year and explore new approaches.

“All of us agreed that it has to be an effective implementable in accordance with international law, and the code of conduct must fulfill this criteria,” Suryodipuro said, adding that Indonesia is going to involve more countries besides China in the negotiation process.

“It's an exploratory stage. We don't know what shape it will take, but as you know negotiation is a key process that is something we intend to intensify,” he said.

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

Vietnam, one of the four ASEAN claimant states, 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, both Chinese allies, have opposed the use of strong language against Beijing in the disputes.

Indonesia is not among the governments challenging China's claim to virtually the entire South China Sea but expressed opposition after China claimed part of Indonesia's exclusive economic zone in the northern region of the Natuna Islands.

The edge of the exclusive economic zone overlaps with Beijing's unilaterally declared “nine-dash line” demarking its claims in the South China Sea.

On the Myanmar issue, Marsudi told a news conference Saturday that ASEAN foreign ministers reiterated the urgent need for Myanmar's military junta to implement the five-point consensus, saying it is “very important for ASEAN.”

On Friday, the ministers urged Myanmar's military rulers to reduce violence and allow unhindered delivery of humanitarian aid to pave the way for a national dialogue aimed at ending the crisis.

Myanmar is also an ASEAN member, but its foreign minister was excluded from Friday's annual ministers' retreat because of his country's failure to implement the five-step consensus.

Marsudi said the ministers agreed that an inclusive national dialogue “is key to finding a peaceful resolution to the situation in Myanmar,” and that reducing violence and providing humanitarian assistance are “paramount for building trust and confidence.”

She said the lack of progress in Myanmar “tests our credibility” as a group, and that ASEAN's efforts toward peace would be coordinated with those of other countries and the United Nations.

Myanmar's military leader promised in the five-point agreement to allow a special ASEAN envoy to meet with jailed ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi and others to foster a dialogue aimed at easing the crisis, set off by the military's seizure of power two years ago. 

But Myanmar refused to let an ASEAN envoy meet with Suu Kyi last year, resulting in Min Aung Hlaing's exclusion from an ASEAN summit last November.

"The public should expect that Indonesia could provide fresh air for finding a political solution to the worsening conflict in Myanmar,” said Dinna Prapto Raharja, an international relations analyst from Synergy Policies, an independent think tank.

“The fragmentation of power in Myanmar is worse and so managing the violence has become more complex,” she said.