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Asean, China adopt guidelines on Spratlys


BALI, Indonesia- After almost a decade, Southeast Asia and China have finally taken the next step in coming up with a legally binding agreement that would ensure the peaceful resolution of the South China Sea dispute.

The foreign ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and China adopted the implementing guidelines of the Declaration of the Code of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) in the Asean-China meeting on July 21, 2011.

The implementing guidelines is a step away from the development of the Code of Conduct. But not every country was satisfied, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa told reporters after the one-hour meeting, looking somber.

He did not specify what these countries are, but one of the six claimants to the oil-rich Spratlys Island, the Philippines, criticized the guidelines for lacking “teeth.”

“It’s a step forward, but there are more steps to be taken to add teeth,” Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario said on July 20, a day before the guidelines was endorsed to the foreign ministers of Asean and China.

Hours before Del Rosario said that, Chinese Assistant Foreign Minister Lin Zhenmin announced to the media that China agreed to adopt the implementing guidelines. Lin stood beside his counterpart from Vietnam, Pham Quan Vinh, with a big smile as he said that the region and China should look forward to having a “bright future” following the finalization of the DOC implementing guidelines.

“It’s an important milestone document,” he said. Vinh agreed. “This is a significant and good start for us to work together to continue dialogue and cooperation with the view to further promote peace and stability in the region,” the assistant to Vietnamese foreign minister Pham Gia Khiem added.

The joint working group on the DOC will reconvene later this year in China.

But the guidelines, Del Rosario said, was done without first considering a framework on the delineation of the territorial jurisdiction of the claimant countries. China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Brunei and Malaysia claim ownership of the Spratlys island, while China and Vietnam also have a territorial dispute over the Paracel islands.


“We had a debate about the approval of the guidelines on the DOC,” Del Rosario said. “The question that we asked is that should we approve the guidelines without a format, an actionable framework for segregating the disputed and non-disputed area?”

The Philippines has proposed to have an Asean- China Zone of Peace, Freedom, Friendship and Cooperation in the West Philippine Sea (Manila’s name for South China Sea) where the disputed areas of Spratlys Island and Paracel Islands would be segregated from the waters and continental shelves that are beyond it.

The disputed parts would be “enclaved” and designated as a Joint Cooperation Area, which would be overseen and managed by a Joint Permanent Working Committee composed of claimants from Asean.

Del Rosario said that the lack of a clear distinction between the disputed areas from those that are not could affect the implementation of confidence-building measures in South China Sea such as the conduct of marine research and marine environmental protection.

“For example, if you’re going to set up a marine park, where would you do this? If you decide that you’re going to do it in an area that is acknowledged as part of sovereignty, chances are you would get an objection,” he said.

Del Rosario added that he came to the 44th Foreign Ministers Meeting “perhaps expecting that the Asean would consider the ZoPFF/C format” first, adding that the guidelines on the DOC could have stood for “another 3-month wait” until the legal matters were resolved. The Asean heads of state would meet in November for the 6th East Asia Summit.

On July 21, Del Rosario said that he reiterated during the Asean-China meeting that the South China Sea row must be resolved through “a rules-based approach.”

“Where there are disputes, rules provide an effective tool for peaceful and fair resolution and we believe that this is the key to advancing the peaceful settlement of disputes for all countries concerned,” he said. The Philippines first said this in its bilateral meeting with China in June, where Del Rosario raised the option of placing the territorial conflict under the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea. China rejected this proposal.

Even with the adoption of the implementing guidelines, however, the debate over the South China Sea is not expected to simmer down as the United States, which has called for a multilateral resolution of the conflict, would join the Asean Regional Forum on July 23.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in the 2010 Asean Regional Forum in Hanoi that “the United States supports a collaborative diplomatic process by all claimants for resolving the various territorial disputes without coercion.—Purple S. Romero



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