Pressure is mounting on China and Southeast Asia to agree a code of conduct to keep the peace in the disputed South China Sea, but Beijing is warning of a long road ahead.
Only last week, US Secretary of State John Kerry urged China and the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) to work out rules to ease tensions after a fresh Chinese campaign of assertiveness in the region.
“The longer the process takes, the longer tensions will simmer and the greater the chance of a miscalculation by somebody that could trigger a conflict,” Kerry said in Indonesia during a visit to Asia.
ASEAN officials told Reuters that a working group of officials from China and the 10-member association would resume negotiations in Singapore on March 18 after agreeing to accelerate talks last year that have made little headway so far.
The code of conduct is intended to bind China and ASEAN to detailed rules of behaviour at sea – all geared to managing tensions long-term while broader territorial disputes are resolved. It stems from a landmark 2002 declaration between ASEAN and China, then hailed as the first significant agreement between the grouping and an outside power.
Much is at stake.
China claims about 90 percent of the South China Sea, displaying its reach on official maps with a so-called nine-dash line that stretches deep into the maritime heart of Southeast Asia.
Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also have claims to the sea, which sits above potentially rich but largely unexplored oil and gas deposits.
The South China Sea carries an estimated $5 trillion in ship-borne trade annually – including oil imports by China, Japan and South Korea.
Kerry also raised the issue in Beijing, where Chinese officials generally bristle at Washington’s growing involvement in China’s territorial disputes. China wanted to try to reach a deal, Kerry said.
In the meantime, Kerry said it was vital for countries to refrain from “coercive or unilateral measures” to assert their claims – an apparent reference to a string of recent moves by China, from expanded naval patrols to new fishing restrictions, that continue to rattle a nervous region.