[Updated] ASEAN, China Agree on Unplanned Encounters Code
Leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members and China issued a joint statement Wednesday on the application of the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) in the South China Sea.
Originally established at the Western Pacific Naval Symposium in 2014, CUES is a guide on communication and maneuvering among naval vessels and aircraft when they operate in close proximity.
The statement was issued after the two sides held the 19th ASEAN-China Summit on September 7. Until this time, China had not expressly confirmed whether or not it would observe the code in the South China Sea.
The South China Sea is increasingly being militarized and used as the site for naval drills. Recent incidents in the Sea involving ASEAN and Chinese vessels have included the ramming and harassment of fishing boats, the obstruction of survey ships, stand-offs, near-collisions and collisions.
The two sides recognized that maintaining peace and stability in the South China Sea was in the best interests of both China and ASEAN member states.
The document said the leaders agreed to use the safety and communication procedures for the safety of all their naval ships and naval aircraft, as set out in CUES, when they encounter each other in the South China Sea.
Specifically, the statement includes the following affirmations:
1. We reaffirm our commitment to CUES in order to improve operational safety of naval ships and naval aircraft in air and at sea, and ensure mutual trust among all Parties;
2. We agree to use the safety and communication procedures for the safety of all our naval ships and naval aircraft, as set out in CUES, when they encounter each other in the South China Sea; and
3. We affirm that this effort contributes to our commitment to maintaining regional peace and stability, maximum safety at sea, promoting good neighborliness and reducing risks during mutual unplanned encounters in air and at sea, and strengthening cooperation among navies.
However, critics say that the agreement lacks power as it is not legally binding and does not cover coast guard vessels.
China wants to "dispel interference" in South China Sea
China said it wants to work with ASEAN to "dispel interference" in the disputed South China Sea, Premier Li Keqiang said during the Summit.
The Philippines said on Wednesday it was "gravely concerned" that Chinese boats were preparing to build structures at a disputed shoal in the South China Sea, shattering an appearance of cordiality at the summit.
China claims much of the South China Sea, through which more than $5 trillion of trade moves annually. Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also have claims.
Officials said talks between Southeast Asian leaders and Li went smoothly, but there was no reference to a July court ruling in The Hague that declared illegal some of China's artificial islands and invalidated its claims to almost the entire waterway.
In a statement released later on Wednesday by China's Foreign Ministry about the meeting, Li was paraphrased as saying China was willing to work with ASEAN countries in "dispelling interference ... and properly handling the South China Sea issue".
He did not elaborate, but such wording is typically used by Chinese leaders to refer to not allowing countries from outside the region with no direct involvement in the dispute, like the United States, from getting involved.
With joint efforts from China and ASEAN members, the situation in the South China Sea is moving towards a positive direction, Li added.
Peace and stability in the South China Sea was directly related to prosperity and development of countries in the region, he said.
"Countries in the region are the biggest beneficiaries of peace in the South China Sea. History and facts have repeatedly showed that the South China Sea can only be peaceful and stable so long as the regional countries themselves get hold of the key to fixing the problems," Lie said.
Hours before the meeting, however, the Philippines' defense ministry released photographs and a map showing what it said was an increased number of Chinese vessels near Scarborough Shoal, which China seized after a standoff in 2012.
Li made no direct mention of Scarborough Shoal in the comments provided by the foreign ministry.