With a code of conduct for the South China Sea nowhere in sight, ASEAN diplomats said they were mulling a decidedly old-fashioned salve in the interim: a telephone hotline.
Speaking on the sidelines of the ASEAN summit, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said ministers had discussed the idea of a hotline during Saturday’s Foreign Minister meeting.
“What Indonesia is now looking for, while we are working on the [Code of Conduct], is a commitment on the part of ASEAN and China to open a hotline of communication. If there were to be an incident in the future – irrespective of the fact that the COC is not yet in operation – we can commit to having communication and dialogue.”
First proposed a decade ago, a binding code governing disputes in the resource-rich body of water has proven to be a Herculean undertaking for the regional bloc. Tensions have flared up repeatedly between China, the largest claimant, and the Philippines and Vietnam, while debate over how to address the issue has led to increasing acrimony among ASEAN member states.
After leaders failed to issue a joint communiqué during the July summit for the first time in the bloc’s 45-year history, over conflict regarding the extent to which the territorial dispute was raised, the COC appeared all but stalled.
Officials this weekend, however, sought to downplay the lack of progress on the decade-old code, insisting that all remained equally dedicated to regional stability – with or without the document in hand.
Cautiously avoiding mention of the code at yesterday’s official opening ceremony, Prime Minister Hun Sen nevertheless stressed that the South China Sea was a topic of concern.
“ASEAN promotes the effective functioning of existing mechanisms to ensure regional security and peace such as... the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea,” he said.
His statement, focused solely on the non-binding declaration, reflects a shift from earlier this year, when Cambodian officials said they hoped a draft code would be finalised under their chairmanship.
Instead, delegates this weekend sought to manage expectations, and refused to speculate on when a draft might be forthcoming.
“People always ask about the timeline... but it depends on the process. The process is equally as important as the outcome,” Foreign Affairs Secretary of State Kao Kim Hourn said during a Saturday press conference, before insisting the document was moving apace.
But yesterday, a ray of hope appeared with officials saying for the first time that a unified ASEAN called for formal talks with China on the issue. Prime Minister Hun Sen was expected to raise the topic of talks on the code with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao during a meeting last night, according to ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwin.
The cause for movement is likely timed to the visit of foreign leaders; just one day earlier, Surin said the dispute was “affecting confidence, having some implications on foreign investment coming in, concern about the safety”.
In a Thursday conference call, US Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said the South China Sea issue would be one of US President Barack Obama’s key points of discussion in Phnom Penh.
“The leaders will want to discuss the salient strategic and security issue facing the region... the issue stemming from the competing territorial claims in the South China Sea.”