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China bats for face-to-face talks with Asean leaders to speed up sea code

MJ Blancaflor

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China has proposed to hold face-to-face consultations with member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to finish talks on the code of conduct in the disputed South China Sea by 2021.

Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian said Beijing is hoping that all parties will “work harder” to conclude next year the negotiations on the biding code which outlines the peaceful resolution of disputes in the resource-rich waters.

Xilian, in an interview with reporters Thursday night, noted that negotiations for the code have been stalled by the coronavirus pandemic, pushing the three-year deadline envisioned by China at the backseat.

He said the first reading of the Single Draft COC Negotiating Text (SDNT) was completed, but the pandemic has precluded face-to-face talks for the document’s second reading.

“Under the current situation, China hopes that all parties will work harder to speed up the negotiation in a flexible and pragmatic way,” Huang said.

“China has proposed to hold face-to-face consultations in China once conditions permit to push forward the second reading of the COC,” he added.

In August 2018, China and the 10-member regional bloc approved a single draft of the code of conduct. Three months later, they agreed to finalize the document within three years, starting from 2019.

The code will ensure that no violent conflicts will arise between the six claimants in the South China Sea.

China, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan have overlapping claims in the resource-rich area known for crude oil and natural gas, as well as its important shipping lanes.

The Philippines is the current coordinator of China-ASEAN relations.

Aside from the pandemic, China’s continuing harassment and militaristic efforts in the South China Sea are also seen to heavily impact negotiations for the elusive code.

Over the years, Beijing has expanded its presence in the waters, turning several reefs into artificial islands with military facilities, runways, and surface to air missiles.

In 2016, the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration upheld the Philippines’ sovereign rights to its 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone and rejected Beijing’s nine-dash line doctrine in the South China Sea.

China refuses to recognize the landmark ruling, which was based on United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), an international treaty that “lays down a comprehensive regime of law and order in the world’s oceans and seas establishing rules governing all uses of the oceans and their resources.”

“China’s position on the arbitration case is consistent and clear. We will not accept and participate in the arbitration, nor will accept or recognize the so-called ruling,” Huang said.

The Chinese envoy also maintained that “dialogue” between countries is the “right path” to resolve the disputes.

“We should avoid misjudgment caused by unilateral actions that would complicate the situation in the disputed waters,” Huang said. “We should continue to maintain close communication on maritime issues through existing dialogue channels such as the bilateral consultation mechanism and avoiding media speculation.”

Huang also urged the Philippines to work with China to safeguard the “hard-won overall sound situation of bilateral relations and of peace and stability in the South China Sea,” as he slammed Washington over its supposed efforts to provoke hostilities in the disputed waters.

“Facts have proved that the United States is the biggest driver of militarization and the most dangerous external factor endangering the peace and stability of the South China Sea,” Huang said.

“All regional countries should be vigilant, and prevent the region’s hard-won peace and development from being sabotaged,” he added.

President Rodrigo Duterte has tip-toed on the maritime dispute and has cultivated cordial ties with China since assuming the presidency in 2016, as he sought Beijing’s funding and support on his big-ticket infrastructure programs.

But in a surprise move last September, Duterte invoked the 2016 Hague ruling in his debut appearance before the United Nations General Assembly — his most forceful defense of the country’s rights in the South China Sea so far.

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