China, ASEAN agree territorial rows not to cloud economic growth

The foreign ministers of China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations agreed Thursday that competing maritime claims in the South China Sea should not overshadow fast-deepening regional economic ties.

"We agreed that the driving forces of our partnership are the converging interests in maintaining peaceful and stable environment conducive to promoting sustainable growth and development," Thai Foreign Minister Surapong Tovijakchaikul said at a press conference after their special meeting in Beijing.

"We will not allow any particular issue to overshadow the ASEAN-China relations, which are progressing well," Surapong, who co-chaired the meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, said.

Wang said, "The new Chinese government has placed high importance on ASEAN" and is "firmly committed" to cooperating with the 10-member bloc "to uphold peace and stability in the region, including in the South China Sea, and properly addressing relevant issues through friendly cooperation."

A major topic at the half-day meeting, organized to mark the 10th anniversary of the establishment of the China-ASEAN strategic partnership, was how to advance a proposed regional code of conduct to settle territorial and maritime conflicts in the sea ahead of the ASEAN summit and other related meetings in Brunei in early October.

But the two foreign ministers, instead of spelling out much in detail on their exchanges regarding South China Sea issues, tried to highlight positive aspects of the strengthening of ties over the decade.

The Thai foreign minister noted that trade between ASEAN and China expanded by five times in 10 years, reaching nearly $400 billion in 2012, and called for the need to upgrade the present free trade agreement between the two sides for further prosperity.

Wang said, "Both China and ASEAN countries are developing countries. Therefore, the most important task facing all of us is developing the economy and improving people's lives."

"Currently, the situation in the South China Sea is a stable one" and they should "cherish it" as that is not the case in many other places in the world, he said.

The foreign ministers have agreed to launch formal consultations by their senior officials on a legally binding code of conduct in China's Suzhou on Sept. 14 and 15.

But China, which has bolstered its naval power in recent years, has long adopted the position that territorial disputes in the South China Sea, involving the Philippines, Vietnam and several other countries, should be addressed bilaterally.

It remains uncertain how much tangible progress the officials can make in laying the groundwork for the creation of the code in the upcoming months.

With regard to the disputes, a diplomat who attended the meeting quoted Wang as telling his counterparts that China and ASEAN "need time to go and shall not be in a hurry" as they cannot be sorted out just tomorrow or the next day.

The South China Sea has long been regarded as a major potential military flashpoint for regional rivalries, partly because the area is rich in marine resources and thought to contain large deposits of oil and natural gas.

A senior ASEAN diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said China's stance remains intact in that it does not want to "multi-lateralize" South China Sea issues and what Beijing most wants out of the meeting was to send a message to the rest of the world that it is "compromising with the parties concerned by allowing working-group and senior-official meetings."

The diplomat said China is keen on avoiding the issues getting heated up again during the upcoming ASEAN summit and related meetings.

In Beijing, the Chinese and ASEAN foreign ministers also discussed elements to put in a joint statement to be issued by their leaders at a summit to mark the 10th anniversary, which is scheduled to take place on the sidelines of the meetings in Brunei in October, according to diplomats involved in the negotiations.

The 10-member ASEAN also includes Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar and Singapore.