ASEAN Pursues Nonaggression Pact With China

The BRP Ramon Alcaraz, the second warship of the Philippine Navy, prepares to dock on Aug. 6, 2013, for a formal welcoming ceremony about 80 kilometers northwest of Manila. Photo: Bullit Marquez / Associated Press

MANILA — Southeast Asia’s top diplomats will seek talks “as soon as possible” on a proposed nonaggression pact with China aimed at preventing clashes in the South China Sea and will likely hold back on criticism of China’s aggressive acts in the disputed waters in a weekend summit.

An initial draft of a joint communique to be issued by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations foreign ministers, which was seen by The Associated Press on Wednesday, says they would ask senior diplomats to immediately initiate talks on the so-called code of conduct in the disputed sea after their governments agreed on a framework of the accord with China in May.

The ASEAN ministers will ask their senior diplomats “to begin earnest discussions on a substantive and effective code of conduct on the basis of the framework as soon as possible,” according to the draft communique.

The long-seething disputes in the South China Sea, alarm over North Korea’s missile tests and the rise of Islamic radicalism in the region amid a deadly siege by Islamic State group-linked militants in the southern Philippines are expected to grab the spotlight in the meetings of ASEAN foreign ministers and their Asian and Western counterparts in Manila starting Saturday.

Robespierre Bolivar, the spokesman of the Department of Foreign Affairs, described the initial progress after yearslong efforts by Southeast Asian countries to negotiate a code of conduct with China “as a very big step.”

Critics have said the framework only serves as a brief outline of previously agreed principles and failed to mention concerns over China’s newly built islands and an arbitration ruling last year that invalidated Beijing’s historic basis for its claims to virtually all of the South China Sea. Beijing has refused to recognize the ruling based on a 1982 maritime treaty.

The draft communique, still to be expanded with inputs from other ASEAN member states, doesn’t mention concern and alarm over China’s artificial islands, which have reportedly been installed with a missile defense system. Those concerns have appeared in previous ASEAN joint statements.

A carefully crafted and subtle line on the dangers lurking in the dispute appears in the draft statement. “We reaffirmed the importance of enhancing mutual trust and confidence, exercising self-restraint … and avoiding unilateral actions in disputed features that may further complicate the situation,” it said.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who is ASEAN chairman this year, moved swiftly after taking office last year to revive his country’s once-frosty ties with China while taking an antagonistic attitude toward its U.S. ally.

Duterte set aside the Philippines’ arbitration victory over China but promised to take it up with Chinese leaders before the end of his six-year term. His move has eased tensions but has been criticized as squandering an opportunity to promote the rule of law in the sea.