Asean emphasises self-restraint in South China Sea activities

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Asean ministers discuss South China Sea

Asean's foreign ministers yesterday emphasised the importance of non-militarisation and self-restraint in all activities in the South China Sea, especially those that could escalate tensions.

Their position was outlined in a statement by Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan at the end of the Asean Foreign Ministers' Retreat, which he chaired.

The statement comes as all 10 Asean members and China are set to begin negotiations on a binding code of conduct to manage tensions in the disputed waters.

The Straits Times understands that negotiations are scheduled to take place on March 1 and 2 in Vietnam.

This week's retreat is the first gathering of Asean foreign ministers under Singapore's chairmanship of the grouping this year.

At the session, ministers discussed Asean's priorities this year and regional and global developments.

Four Asean members - Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam - and China have overlapping claims in the South China Sea, where military installations have been built in recent years.

At the same time, Asean's economic links with China have expanded significantly, and both sides have stressed that the dispute should not divide the grouping or detract from its broader relationship with China.

In the statement, Dr Balakrishnan said the ministers also reiterated the importance of Asean centrality and unity, and their shared commitment to regional stability.

They also stressed the peaceful resolution of disputes, including full respect for legal and diplomatic processes without resorting to the threat of use of force, in line with international law.

The Asean ministers also reaffirmed the importance of maintaining safety and freedom of navigation in, as well as overflight above, the South China Sea, and "warmly welcomed" improving cooperation between Asean and China.

Dr Balakrishnan told reporters after the retreat that negotiations on a code of conduct will be complicated.

"There is no shortage of sensitive issues that will take a lot of innovation and imagination on the part of diplomats... and exercise of political will," he said, but he was optimistic that some progress could be made.

"I believe there is a shared good faith and goodwill on both sides, to try to... make a significant advance this year," he said.

"What is far more important is the building up of trust between all the parties so we can actually engage in what will be very difficult negotiations."