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China, ASEAN agree on framework for South China Sea code of conduct

19 May 2017

State media on Friday quoted Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin as saying that the agreement reached the day before laid a "solid foundation" for further negotiations.

Until recently, progress has been slow amid disputes over the body of water that China claims virtually in its entirety.

The South China Sea dispute involves islands and maritime claims in the region among several sovereign states besides China, like Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei and Vietnam.

The U.S. State Department said it understood ASEAN and China had "not agreed on a text of a Code of Conduct, but on an initial framework describing how such a document might be structured".

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Japan scrambled fighter jets on Thursday after four Chinese coastguard vessels entered what Japan considers its territorial waters near disputed East China Sea islets and a drone-like object flew near one ship, Japan said.

The Philippines, which chairs the 10-member ASEAN this year, has expressed hope of finalizing such an agreement during its leadership.

The speculation is that either Trump has taken his eye off the ball, or is deliberating not pursuing the South China Sea in exchange for China's cooperation on other issues - most likely trade and pressuring North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un over his nuclear weapons program.

In a statement on May 18, Foreign Affairs Spokesperson Robespierre Bolivar said the Philippines welcomes the completion of the drafting of the framework.

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A code of conduct is the key objective of a 2002 Declaration on Conduct, large parts of which China has ignored, particularly a commitment not to occupy or reclaim uninhabited features.

Beijing is also eager to shift the debate over the South China Sea away from the July 2016 ruling by a five-judge tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague.

In the recent months, tension over the SCS abated after new Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte scaled down Manila's emphasis on its SCS claims even after it won an global tribunal award a year ago.

Former Philippine Consul General Maria Hellen Barber De La Vega to Los Angeles represented the Philippines in the 14th China-ASEAN Senior Officials Meeting on the Implementation of the DOC and the 23rd ASEAN-China Senior Officials' Consultation. The Philippine government maintained that it owns the territory where Filipino troops and villagers have lived for decades.

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Experts say China wants to appear to engage ASEAN or bind its claimant states to a weak code at a time when USA policy on the South China Sea is in a state of flux.