Despite China and ASEAN trying to iron out the differences

Eager to prevent tensions over the South China Sea from snowballing into a full-fledged conflict, the 10-nation ASEAN on Wednesday agreed to intensify official consultations with China on the development of a Code of Conduct (CoC) in these contested waters.

China's differences with four members of ASEAN – Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam -- over their claims to parts of the South China Sea, and the U.S. ``rebalance to Asia’’ policy has added concerns of the Washington-Beijing competition being played out in these waters.

From the interventions made at this year’s ASEAN Summit and in the bloc’s meetings with various partner countries, it was evident that the South China Sea tension – which created a fissure within the grouping at the last summit in Cambodia -- remained a common concern though China and ASEAN have begun working together to iron out the differences after Beijing’s earlier insistence on addressing the issue bilaterally with the concerned countries.

China and ASEAN began formal consultations on the CoC after the 6 ASEAN-China Senior Officials Meeting on the Implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DoC) and the 9 ASEAN-China Joint Working Group on the implementation of the DoC in Suzhou last month.

Stressing the need to uphold peace and stability in East Asia here on Wednesday, Chinese premier Li Keqiang sought to rule out outside intervention in settling the maritime issues plaguing the region. ``Territorial and maritime disputes between relevant countries in this region should be resolved by countries concerned through friendly consultation. Countries should work constructively as partners to jointly manage and control tensions and differences,’’ he said.

With China beginning to work with ASEAN in addressing the maritime issues, Mr. Li’s remarks are being seen as a message to the U.S. in view of Secretary of State John Kerry’s reiteration that Washington’s ``rebalance to Asia’’ policy is here to stay; irrespective of President Barack Obama failing to put in a presence at the summit owing to domestic compulsions and America’s preoccupations elsewhere in the world.

Among the ASEAN members party to the South China Sea dispute, the Philippines was eager to see the immediate conclusion of the ASEAN-China CoC to manage ongoing tensions in what Manila refers to as the `West Philippine Sea’. ``As we look towards finalizing the CoC, we urge all parties to observe implementation of the DoC in the sea known by many names in all its aspects.’’

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh also dwelt on the issue while addressing the 8 East Asia Summit – also being held here – on Thursday morning, ahead of his engagement at the ASEAN-India Summit. ``A stable maritime environment is essential to realize our collective regional aspirations. We should reaffirm the principles of maritime security, including the right of passage and unimpeded commerce in accordance with international law, and peaceful settlement of disputes.’’

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