China wants to stage joint military exercises with Southeast Asian nations in disputed waters, according to a draft document, but insists other countries should be excluded in what analysts say is a bid to diminish the influence of the United States.
Beijing’s suggestions, which also call for joint oil and gas exploration, are part of efforts to expand its influence in the South China Sea, which it claims almost entirely, and push back at Washington which has backed countries with overlapping claims to the waters.
The move came as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo touched down in Malaysia Thursday on the first leg of a regional tour in which simmering maritime tensions with Beijing are expected to feature prominently.
Pompeo will travel to Singapore on Saturday for talks with Asian and European Union (EU) counterparts on political and security issues in Asia-Pacific as the US seeks to promote its strategic vision for the pivotal region.
A code of conduct between Beijing and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) to govern behaviour in the South China Sea has been years in the making.
The draft document, seen by AFP, outlines different countries’ bargaining positions as they work towards an agreement, and analysts said it represented some initial progress.
In the text, Vietnam offers the strongest opposition to Beijing’s activities – calling for countries to stop building artificial islands and establishing military installations.
But there was little sign of serious resistance from other countries, signalling how opposition to China’s aggressive expansion in the resource-rich waters has ebbed in recent years in Southeast Asia.
At a meeting of foreign ministers in Singapore on Thursday, Beijing and Asean announced they had agreed on the negotiating text for the code.
Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, who is chairing the meeting, called the draft a “major achievement”.
“The code of conduct is meant to... ensure that peace, stability, confidence is built up so that we can continue to make collective progress between Asean and China while we take time to resolve the territorial disputes,” he said on Thursday.
However, it was too early to say when negotiations would be complete, he added.
Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam have rival claims to China’s in the sea.
Tensions have escalated in recent years due to Beijing building artificial islands that can host military bases.