ASEAN defense ministers on Thursday approved a declaration seeking to turn the South China Sea, a maritime region marked by tension over competing territorial claims, into a sea of peace.
Meeting in Bangkok, the defense chiefs representing the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations signed a 35-point declaration, which includes a guideline to reach a code of conduct in the South China Sea while improving information-sharing among members.
"We affirm the importance of promotion of peace, stability, safety and freedom to sail in the South China Sea," Thai Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwan told reporters after the ministers signed the declaration, which was delivered to ASEAN Secretary-General Dato Lim Jock Hoi. It was part of a joint statement issued by the defense ministers as they wrapped up their meeting in Bangkok, which began Wednesday.
In June, following the 34th summit of ASEAN leaders, Thailand, which is chairing the regional bloc this year, announced that progress was made in negotiations "toward the early conclusion of an effective and substantive code of conduct" for ASEAN members and China.
That statement was referring to the first of three planned rounds of talks on the proposed code, with more difficult points such as whether it should be legally binding or relegated to later rounds, according to diplomats. Officials expect a first reading of the code by the end of 2019.
The efforts stem from a June 2018 agreement between ASEAN and China on a "draft code of conduct negotiating text." Both sides have sought to reach an agreement since 2002.
Following Thursday's meeting in Bangkok, Prawit announced that the defense ministers had taken steps toward reaching the ASEAN goal.
"We agreed to promote mutual trust and restraint to avoid acts which could make the situation more complicated and promote peaceful conflict settlement through the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea," Prawit said in responding to a reporter's question.
"Moreover, the meetings stressed the determination to mutually work to change South China Sea into the sea of peace, stability and sustainable development," he said.
China claims much of the South China Sea as its own, including waters in the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines. ASEAN members the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam have their own claims to portions of the oil-rich sea.
Other ASEAN members are Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar and Singapore.
Last month, tensions were raised between Manila and Beijing after a Chinese trawler allegedly rammed into a Philippine fishing boat off Recto Bank and left 22 Filipino fishermen stranded at sea. Amid mounting domestic anger over the sinking of the Filipino boat, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in late June agreed to an offer by Beijing to conduct a joint investigation into the incident.
In addition to the South China Sea efforts, the ministers during their meeting in Bangkok adopted a series of plans to deal with regional security issues, including setting up a hotline.
Maj. Gen. Tikumporn Chuleelang, a Thai defense planner, said the ministers were setting up the special phone line with the so called ASEAN-Plus countries - Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, Russia and the United States - along with a group of European Union countries.
"It will be a direct phone call or hot line, defense ministers could call each other to discuss matters directly," he said.
Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.
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