Southeast Asian leaders said a 1982 UN oceans treaty should be the basis of sovereign rights and entitlements in the South China Sea, in one of their strongest remarks opposing China’s claim to virtually the entire disputed waters on historical grounds.
The leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations took the position in a statement issued by Vietnam on Saturday on behalf of the 10-nation bloc. ASEAN leaders held their annual summit by video on Friday, with the COVID-19 pandemic and the long-raging territorial disputes high on the agenda. “We reaffirmed that the 1982 UNCLOS is the basis for determining maritime entitlements, sovereign rights, jurisdiction and legitimate interests over maritime zones,” the ASEAN statement said.
The leaders were referring to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, a 1982 international agreement that defines the rights of nations to the world’s oceans.
Three Southeast Asian diplomats told that it marked a significant strengthening of the regional bloc’s assertion of the rule of law in a disputed region that has long been regarded as an Asian flashpoint. While it has criticised aggressive behaviour in the disputed waters, ASEAN has never castigated China by name in its post-summit communiques.
As ASEAN’s leader this year, Vietnam oversaw the drafting of the “chairman’s statement”. Vietnam has been one of the most vocal critics of China’s actions in the disputed waters.