The foreign ministers of China and Indonesia suggested Thursday that an existing ASEAN-China working group will start discussions soon on binding rules to resolve territorial disputes in the South China Sea, while a group of eminent people will be set up to complement negotiations on the rule.
Speaking during a press conference with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said "a number of practical suggestions" had been "made and endorsed" during their bilateral talks.
"One idea is for the ASEAN-China working group on the DOC (Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea) to begin discussions on the COC (code of conduct) at the director general-level in the near future," Natalegawa told reporters.
He was referring to a declaration signed by the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations and China in 2002.
No ASEAN-China working group has been set up previously before to discuss the code of conduct as China was not ready to negotiate.
Meanwhile, the working group on the DOC has so far only discussed the implementation of what both sides agreed to in the DOC and did not touch on the COC.
Natalegawa said he and Wang had also endorsed the establishment of an Eminent Persons' Group on the code of conduct that will complement formal discussions on the binding code within the ASEAN-China working group.
"At first, Indonesia was not so supportive about the Eminent Persons' Group because Indonesia does not want this EPG to be a substitute for the government-to-government process," he said.
Wang said China is always open for discussions on the code of conduct.
"The fact is that we have agreed with ASEAN that both sides will create the COC based on consensus and this is a common agreement between ASEAN and China," Wang said.
Both ministers stressed, however, that the path towards the creation of a code of conduct in the South China Sea is a part of a process.
"This is a step-by-step evolutionary process that we will both work on very closely...on the ASEAN concept of comfort-level basis," Natalegawa said.
Asked on China's position on the South China Sea, Wang said China will continue to maintain peace and stability and is committed to settling the territorial dispute through consensus with related parties in a peaceful manner.
"That is our position and we will never change it. We won't only talk but will do it in the form of action," he said.
Earlier in the day, Wang met ASEAN Secretary General Le Luong Minh during which the latter stressed the importance of ASEAN and China "moving toward an early conclusion of the code of conduct in the South China Sea" in a way that will contribute to the maintenance of peace and stability in the region.
Minh said that the foreign ministers of ASEAN and China will hold a special meeting in August to discuss the code of conduct.
Disputes in the South China Sea have periodically erupted into altercations, with standoffs between vessels of rival claimants, collisions and even naval clashes, which have heightened tensions in East Asia.
The Spratly Islands are claimed in whole by China, Taiwan and Vietnam, and in part by the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei. ASEAN also includes Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Singapore and Thailand.
Other contested areas include the Paracel Islands, over which the navies of China and Vietnam have come to blows in the past, and Scarborough Shoal, an outcrop north of the Spratlys that is hotly disputed by China and the Philippines.
The Philippines and Vietnam are the most vocal among ASEAN countries in demanding that China forge a binding code of conduct with ASEAN to prevent clashes in disputed areas.