ASEAN, China likely to wrangle…

CORRECTED: ASEAN, China likely to wrangle…

MANILA, March 9 Kyodo

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations and China’s talks next week in Hua Hin, southern Thailand, on a proposed code of conduct in the South China Sea are expected to meet resistance on the scope and specificity of their respective drafts, senior ASEAN officials said Thursday.

ASEAN’s draft calls for a stop to occupation and erection of structures on uninhabited islands in the disputed Spratly and Paracel islands in the area.

The draft, which evolved from an earlier proposal mentioning only the Spratlys, is expected to be opposed by China, whose own draft covers the entire South China Sea, which it wholly claims.

“The zone of application remains the main stumbling block” to an agreement over the code of conduct, the ASEAN official said.

The same official added there is also some difficulty in harmonizing language over the principle there be no new occupation in the area.

“China supports non-occupation in principle but there are some differences in language,” he added.

In its draft, ASEAN calls on parties concerned “to refrain from action of inhabiting or erecting structures on presently uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals, cays and other features in the disputed area.”

A copy of China’s draft shows it is calling on parties concerned simply to “continue to exercise self-restraint and handle their disputes and differences in a cool and constructive manner through diplomatic channels, and refrain from taking actions that will complicate and magnify the disputes.”

ASEAN officials — who are concerned over China’s construction of structures on Philippine-claimed Mischief Reef and its presence on other uninhabited reefs in the Spratlys — feel the Chinese document is too nebulous and lacking in detail.

A confidential report prepared by an ASEAN official, a copy of which was obtained by Kyodo News, shows that among claimants in the South China Sea, Vietnam, like China, wants the code to apply to the whole South China Sea. Malaysia wants the code to apply only to the Spratlys and Paracels, while the Philippines is amenable to limiting the code to the Spratlys.

“Malaysia proposed that the (code) be specifically applicable to ‘the Spratlys and Paracels’ rather than the ‘South China Sea,’ arguing there were certain parts of the (sea) it considers territorial waters,” the report noted.

The report said the Philippines explained to other ASEAN members it was amenable to limiting the code’s application to the Spratlys because its position is that other areas outside the Spratlys such as Scarborough Shoal are not “disputed areas,” but are part of Philippine territory.

Scarborough lies 128 nautical miles (about 230 kilometers) west of the Philippines’ Zambales Province. It is in the South China Sea, but is outside the Spratlys and is being claimed by the Philippines and China.

Vietnam’s insistence the code apply to the entire South China Sea comes from its concern regarding China’s position that the entire sea is its territorial waters, and Hanoi’s view of the issue as a maritime jurisdictional/resources dispute rather than simply a dispute over territory, the report said.

Vietnam is “concerned that limiting the code to a part of the (sea) will leave un-addressed certain potential maritime issues in the waters all over the (area),” the report added.

The Philippines shares the same concern, but looks at an ASEAN-endorsed code as an immediate objective because it provides Manila with greater sway with China.

For its part, China is also proposing a “refrain from use or threat of force, or taking coercive measures, such as seizures, detention or arrest, against fishing boats or other civilian vessels engaged in normal operation in the disputed areas, nor against nationals of other countries thereon.”

This is an apparent reaction to continued patrols in the area by the Philippine Navy, which on several occupations apprehended Chinese fishing boats and detained Chinese fishermen found poaching in Philippine waters.

The Spratlys are claimed in part or as a whole by Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam, while the Paracels are claimed by China and Vietnam.

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