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Seeking a bridge over troubled waters

Today's negotiations between Asean and China for a code of conduct in the South China Sea could herald a peaceful future for the region

Asean and China are attempting to prove that they can settle conflicts over South China Sea territory via peaceful means as high-level negotiating teams from both sides meet in Pattaya to discuss the matter.

Asean officials and their Chinese counterparts held their 7th Senior Officials' Meeting on the Implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) yesterday, and are back around the table today for the 20th China-Asean Senior Officials' Consultation.

Asean member countries have been at loggerheads with their giant neighbour China over marine territory for some time. The Philippines and Vietnam have overlapping claims on islands and reefs believed to sit amid valuable energy and fishery resources.

The disputed lands are witness to occasional stand-offs between Chinese ships and their Vietnamese and Philippine counterparts, but Beijing, Hanoi, Manila and other Asean member countries have made it clear that they are not willing to use force to settle their differences. The international community has also urged disputants to exercise the utmost restraint in handling the situation.

Both sides have, indeed, made efforts in creating legal frameworks and agreements for peaceful mediation. Asean and China signed an initial DOC in 2002, but the disputes remain and the declaration has done little to quell tensions. In fact the DOC is a non-binding agreement with no mechanism and no legal instrument to handle the maritime disputes.

Progress was made on the 10th anniversary of the DOC, when the idea for a code of conduct governing the South China Sea was raised. For the first time, China agreed to sit down with disputants and discuss implementation of the DOC and the creation of a code of conduct. Asean and China assigned their senior officials to carry out the task and, two years later, they are gathered in Pattaya for one of a series of meetings aimed at developing a code of conduct in the South China Sea.

An effective code to regulate the sea disputes probably won't be produced overnight, but it shouldn't take too long given the many players who have a stake in the region's primary maritime-trade route.

Of course, it's unlikely the code will be the magic wand that ends all conflicts in the South China Sea. But it could be an instrument that regulates not just the maritime conduct of Asean and China, but also ensures safety and freedom of navigation for all other powers that use the sea.

Another major benefit of a code of conduct would be to prove to the world that the countries of our region, no matter how big or small, are civilised enough to adopt rules and regulations in the quest for peaceful coexistence whatever their disputes.


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