ASEAN-China sign agreement to peacefully process South China Sea disputes

China has signed an agreement with ASEAN to move toward peaceful resolutions of maritime disputes in the South China Sea.

The agreement on the "guidelines of implementing the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC)" comes amid continued clashes between China and Western Pacific neighbours over territorial claims and ownership of maritime natural resources.

There is also a fear that China’s major goal is to "control the international sea lane from the Middle East to the Malacca Strait, through the East Sea to Truong Sa Archipelago (Spratly Islands) and to Hoang Sa Archipelago (Paracel Islands)."

"A huge proportion of the world trade flows through that area," said Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd. "So we all have an interest in ensuring a peaceful, stable regime in managing those waterways for the future."

The China-ASEAN agreement, signed at the 44th ASEAN Foreign Ministers meeting in Bali, was welcomed by Chinese Assistant Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin.

"This is an important milestone document on the cooperation among China and ASEAN countries," Liu told reporters. "And we have a bright future and we are looking forward to future cooperation."

A communique from China and ASEAN stressed the importance of maintaining peace and stability in the South China Sea and "the continued exercise of self-restraint by all parties concerned."

The communique noted the proposal of the Philippines for having senior officials of ASEAN work with maritime legal experts to study ways of resolving the escalating disputes over islands and atolls in the South China Sea. Their proposals will be presented to the 19th ASEAN Summit, starting 24 September in Bali.

ASEAN and China have agreed to establish more formal, but general, guidelines for conducting discussions on maritime issues but haven't laid out specific legal, bilateral or multilateral routes for tackling the issue of territorial claims.

The deal is notable for its lack of detail, said analysts. The common factor in all South China Sea disputes is China. Beijing, which is beefing up its maritime patrols, lays claim to all the island groupings, even those much closer to the shores of ASEAN members Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam.

"I feel that this is very positive," Indonesian Foreign Minister and summit chairman Marty Natalegawa said of the breakthrough. "You can see, year in and year out, things are beginning to get worse," he said. "At least now we can move on, the guidelines are behind us and we can move on to the code of conduct itself" He stressed, however, that "a lot of nurturing, a lot of confidence-building" still needs to be done.

Earlier Philippines Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert F. del Rosario underscored ASEAN-China relations as "robust, mutually enriching and a strategic partnership" even as he renewed his call for a rules-based approach on the maritime dispute in the South China Sea (West Philippine Sea).

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