Kono voices concern over South China Sea


Foreign ministers and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Secretary-General Le Luong Minh join hands for a family photo during opening ceremony of the 50th ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) meeting in Manila on Saturday.

China's territorial disputes in the strategic and potentially oil- and gas-rich waterway with Taiwan and ASEAN member states Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam intensified after Beijing built islands in the disputed waters in recent years and reportedly started to install a missile defense system on them, alarming rival claimant states as well as the US and other Western governments.

A code of conduct has always been discussed, with both sides agreeing in 2002 on a loose set of guidelines known as the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the region.

"It's clear that China's pressure on individual ASEAN governments has paid off with few prepared even to reiterate statements that they have made many times before", Bill Hayton, a South China Sea expert and associate fellow with the Asia Program at Chatham House in London, said.

The role of the Philippines as 2017 chair of Asean has helped China keep a lid on discord.

Wang congratulated ASEAN on its 50th anniversary, saying China is happy for ASEAN's development and achievements while expressing best wishes for ASEAN's development in the next 50 years.

The ministers also called for a proposed code of conduct in the South China Sea, to be negotiated by China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), to be "legally binding, meaningful, effective, and consistent with worldwide law".

Southeast Asian nations feuded on Sunday over how to respond to Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea, with Vietnam insisting on a tough stance but Cambodia lobbying hard for Beijing, diplomats said. Under the circumstances, Kono called for the ASEAN members' cooperation for a peaceful solution to the South China Sea issues, by explaining Japan's position at Sunday's meeting, sources with access to the talks said.

Wang did not elaborate on to whom he referred as the "outside parties", but his announcement came shortly after the U.S. Navy carried out "freedom of navigation" exercises near disputed islands, as it sought to counter-balance perceived Chinese bullying in the disputed area.

President Rodrigo Duterte downplayed the ruling as part of his push for broader bilateral relations with Beijing.

ASEAN's deadlock over the statement highlights China's growing influence on the grouping at a time of uncertainty over the new United States administration's security priorities and whether it will try to keep China's maritime activities in check.

The court a year ago threw out China's historical claims to the region.

Following the court decision previous year, Duterte himself said that he told Chinese leader Xi Jinping that he planned drilling explorations in the area.