ASEAN leaders discuss how to deal with China on South China Sea

Leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations on Thursday discussed how they can speed up consultations with China on the South China Sea territorial dispute.

"We tasked our Ministers to continue to work actively with China on the way forward for the early conclusion of a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea on the basis of consensus," said a chairman's statement issued after their the meeting by Brunei, which currently holds the rotating chairmanship of the 10-member grouping.

The statement said the leaders reaffirmed their earlier commitments to ensure the resolution of the dispute without resorting to the use or threat of force.

Brunei Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah said at a news conference after the summit that ASEAN leaders have agreed that ASEAN members which are claimant states in the disputes should deal individually with their claims while working as a group with China on the code of conduct.

He also urged member states to keep the lines of communication open.

"We have agreed on what I see as a two-step approach. Firstly, the overlapping claims are for the claimant states to deal with. Secondly, both ASEAN and China wish to promote a calm and peaceful atmosphere and urgently work on a code of conduct," he said.

"We would like all parties concerned to seize the current positive momentum and to reach an agreement on the code of conduct. And we all agreed to encourage continuing discussions, dialogue and consultations in all levels especially on all claimant countries and to keep the lines communications open," he said.

"In my view, it is important to have in place practical procedures which could shift in avoiding dire incidents at sea. For instance, if there is a major storm, fishermen may need to seek temporary shelter in disputed areas," he said.

"Such innocent incidents may be misinterpreted and therefore it would be appropriate to have established procedures...and to avoid mistakes," Bolkiah said.

Thai permanent secretary Sihasak Phuangketkeow said that ASEAN leaders have expressed support at the summit for Thailand's proposal to hold a special ASEAN foreign ministers meeting in Bangkok soon before an ASEAN-China summit in October to mark the 10th anniversary of the declaration on the code of conduct on the South China Sea that was signed between both parties in 2002.

The statement also expressed concern for the recent heightening of tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

"We emphasized the importance of dialogue aimed at promoting mutual understanding and confidence among all parties concerned with ensuring peace, security and stability" on the Korean Peninsula.

On the economic front, the leaders also discussed how to meet their goal of realizing an ASEAN Economic Community by 2015. The statement said ASEAN countries have already implemented 77.5 percent of the measures in the blueprint that was adopted in 2007 for achieving the AEC.

In this connection, they agreed to develop a roadmap to boost the region's competitiveness, by making it easier for companies to operate in the region, moving business impediments and improving regulations.

Negotiations for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, one of the world's largest free trade areas that would include 16 East Asian nations, including Japan, will kick off in May with the goal of concluding a deal by 2015, the statement said.

ASEAN has also agreed to negotiate a free trade agreement with Hong Kong, it said. However, officials said it is not clear when the negotiations will start as ASEAN currently has its hands full with the AEC goal.

The statement said that ASEAN leaders "looked forward" to the institutionalization of the ASEAN+3 Macroeconomic Research Office, East Asia's first financial and economic surveillance unit.